Manchester United’s spine key to title success

The additions this summer have added the pieces this Manchester United side were missing. As is Jose Mourinho’s MO, he has built his side to succeed in his second season.

It’s a little bit frustrating that I’ve not been able to put together this article before the start of the season. The reason being that it all looks a bit reactive in respects to what has happened for United in the opening two games. The plan was to get this out beforehand however time did not allow. Please feel free to check out my prediction that United would win the league before the season kicked off. After two games, two 4-0 wins, everyone has sit up and taken notice that this team appears focused, determined and built to win this season. A team which many didn’t tip to compete this season, look to be the favourites now to win it. Why? It’s their spine.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see United start like this. It’s what Mourinho does. He’s won the league in the second season of each of his previous clubs. He’s made this formula an artform. He assesses his squad in the 1st season, looks to imbed his philosophy and expectations during the time and importantly seeks to add the players he knows the team needs to succeed. After two games the evidence is pretty strong once again that his formula appears to be working.

The Coaching Battle
Now this idea of being ‘built’ to succeed in the Premier League is an important one. All teams ‘build’ their sides to compete yet each manager will have his different ideas, different type of player and philosophy. One only has to look at Stoke and see the contrast between what Tony Pulis put together and what Mark Hughes is seeking to do. The game has a lot of variety, opinion and ideas. It’s why it’s so fascinating. There is no one right way to play.

The contrast is evident between the two Manchester clubs. Which is a dream for the media because it feels as though the Mourinho vs Guardiola battle is set to really heat up this season.

As seems the case with Mourinho he will be constantly compared and judged against his arch-nemesis Pep Guardiola, and in this situation the comparisons are fair and important. Let us first touch on fashion. A strange place to start perhaps but an important one I believe.

Ever since Guardiola emerged on the scene as coach of Barcelona he has been something of a fashion icon in the world of football management. A mantle previously held by Jose Mourinho. Now I believe that everything Mourinho does is calculated and thought out. So when he started to ‘dress down’ while manager at Madrid, I genuinely believe he did so as to not be seen in any way to be competing with Guardiola. He feared being second best. So it was better to be opposite than try and do the same and finish behind. A nice metaphor of what Madrid became under Mourinho in the battles versus Barcelona. Yet this season Mourinho sported a very good suit and looked the old Mourinho, a man of style and suave. It’s my belief that Mourinho feels confident in himself and his team. A message which should fear the rest of the league. As they say, you can really judge someone on their shoes.

You see people compare Mourinho and Guardiola in all aspects, it really is a battle across so many facets. In terms of ‘philosophies’ and their playing style and approach to the game. it is a valid comparison because it’s evident both coaches seek different ways to win. Mourinho is more of a counter attack type coach whereas Guardiola is focused on dominating possession. Both coaches have been hugely successful. But Guardiola has yet to do it in England.

Built To Succeed
Mourinho is often portrayed as a negative/defensive coach which is unfair as his teams tend to be high scoring ones. However the focus on defending isn’t a problem or negative, in fact it’s a strength. As many will know I personally am a huge believer in the importance and focus of defending. I believe the best sides and most successful ones build their success with a strong defensive foundation and mindset. Mourinho has done for almost 15 years now.

In terms of the league this season, Mourinho’s approach seems far more conducive to winning the league than City’s, I find it hard to believe that a team who is weak defensively can win the Premier League. Regardless of the array of attacking talent, I struggle to look at City and see English champions. Their domination of the ball and the element that attack is the best form of defence etc. is a commendable approach and I see a fantastic group of players who play lovely football, yet I don’t see the kind of mentality and player which makes me think this team can do it.

Compare that to United and I see a team built to dominate English football. Guardiola says he will do it his way, which is admirable, to an extent. But I actually thought the Bundesliga would have given him more tactical weapons to work with and ideas to use than focusing solely on the positional play ideology. And this was the case at Bayern. At some stages through his time there looked able to adapt and play in almost any system and almost any style. It was impressive how malleable that team could be. However I look at what Guardiola is building at City and I see a one-dimensional approach similar to what he did at Barca.

However the game has changed and elements of variety and adaptability mixed in with a strong athleticism has become the formula for success. City don’t offer this. They pass in order to break lines and play between units and when it works it looks fantastic. But the problem last season was that they were found out quite early and never really recovered or learnt from it.

Their transfer deals this summer highlight this; City have added pieces to make their style of play better. But there’s questions whether this style is conducive to succeed in England. It’s fair to compare both United and City now with Arsenal. Arsenal have transformed from the team which seemingly dominated England over a decade ago. A team built to dominate physically and technically, with speed, athleticism and character. They played some excellent football yet also counter attacked at speed and were direct when required. It was defensively powerful and dominant, a team who could fight you and out play you, whichever was required.

And then Wenger moved away from this approach and sought a more possession based style, less transitions, less dominance and more emphasis on technical excellence and possession football. For some the football was majestic, but the success disappeared. A team who were always challenging became a perennial runner up (at best). The truth was Arsenal abandoned a style of football and type of player which was working in the Premier League, and replaced it with a weaker style which has still not delivered a title.

Chelsea on the other hand, and Mourinho notably was no fool and built his 1st Chelsea side in very much the vein of that dominant Arsenal team. It was tall, physical, quick, intelligent, defensively dominant, strong and tactically excellent. And it was successful. The core of that Chelsea team continued to succeed after Mourinho left. Foolishly Abramovich tried to move away from the formula which worked so well and achieved so much, striving to ‘be like Barcelona’. But you can’t just change like that.

Mourinho’s second time around made sure to instil the previous values and added the type of players which ‘worked’ in England. The additions of Matic and Costa as well as the return of Courtois in goal brought a stronger spine to the Chelsea side, and if there’s an element of the team which Mourinho makes sure is strong, it is the spine.

It’s The Spine, Stupid
Consider the strength of Cech, Terry, Carvalho, Makelele, Essien, Lampard, Ballack, Drogba and you see the dominance, power, athleticism, leadership and quality which made Chelsea such a dominant force in England and Europe. Consider what Arsenal had in their pomp with Seaman/Lehmann, Adams, Campbell, Petit, Vieira, Gilberto, Berkgamp, Henry. Spines are what win titles and bring success to a team.

So when you look at what Mourinho and Guardiola have done to their teams this summer you see a very different focus and approach, one which I believe highlights where the title is going this season. Mourinho has added to his spine; Lindelof may take time to adapt in the same way Vidic did, yet he is a league winner in Portugal and will improve. He will aid the impressive and dominant Eric Bailly.

Matic is a clear improvement for United’s midfield, and an upgrade on Carrick, who for all his class is an older pro now and United’s midfield needed more energy, dominance and presence in there. Matic offers that above most midfielders in the world. It is still crazy to think Chelsea were so happy to allow him to leave, yet alone leave to a direct rival. What a grave mistake this will prove to be from Chelsea, and a masterstroke of business from United. Matic provides the cover to the defence and platform for others in the midfield to have more freedom and impetus to support the attack. This notably means more freedom for Paul Pogba.

Let’s talk about Pogba. With the present craziness of the transfer market his transfer seemingly seems like good business for United. He fits the profile of the present midfielder; strong, dynamic and skilful. France appear awash with this type of midfielder and there’s evidently this emergence of the complete dominant midfielder who is athletic, strong and technically very good. Pogba could be the best of this particular group. But he didn’t get close last season.

Pogba underperformed last season yet signs are already there that either because of Matic or simply his own mentality to provide more, he has shown early this season that he will be more than just a continuity midfielder this season. He needs to do this for his own profile and brand as well as the team succeeding.

The addition of Lukaku is an upgrade on Zlatan, who although has been a world class forward for the past decade at least, he showed his limitations last season and while his goal return was positive, United suffered because of his role and limits physically. Lukaku provides the speed and athleticism which Zlatan now lacks and United’s play can be much more dynamic with Lukaku leading the line. Taking Zlatan and Rooney out that side and adding Lukaku and a more focused and fitter Mkhitaryan along with Rashford and United look much faster and frightening proposition on the break. Although Zlatan has re-signed, it seems clear that Lukaku is and will be United’s key centre forward this season and onwards – and that bodes well for United’s chances.

United possess the best spine in the league – one which has potential to rival that of the best in the Premier League. And one which doesn’t seem built for just now either. Keeping De Gea (once again) means that United keep hold of the best keeper in the league. It’s players apart from Matic who are between 24-28 years of age – meaning potentially a spine which can continue for several years. And as they improve, which players like Pogba and Lukaku will unquestionably do, they offer a frightening prospect to the league.

City’s One-Dimensional, Defensively Weak Approach
Compare all this to City. City chose not to add to the spine but to the wings; they spent over £100m on wing backs; Walker, Mendy and Danilo. While adding Bernardo Silva who likes to drift from wide areas. The full/wing back situation at City was needed to be addressed however wasn’t the spine also? Adding Ederson looks to be something of a gamble yet he is a league winner at Benfica and so has pedigree of success. But is his strength in being a top class goalkeeper or was he bought on what he can do with distribution?

I think, like in the case of centre halves, that you must judge them as a defender first, not second. Yet it appears that Guardiola has added players to his team who aid the ‘in possession phases’, yet perhaps fail to address the concerning element which City have which is defending, as a team and unit. Personally I’m just not sold on City as an all-round team. They have some fantastic footballers and they will play some of the best football – in terms of passing/combinations in the league. But is this team built to win the league? I really don’t think it is.

I believe too much will put on the injury prone Kompany at the back, who himself has defensive errors in him. Fernandinho seemingly has the role of midfield enforcer solely on his own shoulders this season – which may leave him exposed and vulnerable too often. The player who seems most suited to success in the Premier League is Yaya Toure. Toure was the most recent ‘most dominant midfielder in the league’ but his best days are long behind him and you can’t rely on him defensively to dominate the midfield like he did when he first arrived at City, and which made them such a force and brought two league titles.

And where is the variety in attack? A plethora of attacking forwards who can rotate with fluid attacking football, who are dynamic, skilful and creative, it sounds wonderful. But it’s similar to what Arsenal sought post 2006, and while it brought ‘lovely’ football, it didn’t bring success. City’s forward line of Aguero and Jesus is wonderful in terms of their skill, pace and technical skill, but let’s not forget that it was Eden Dzeko who was such a key figure in both of City’s title successes. Often he was relied on to bring the key goals in games, when perhaps City were struggling to find a way.

What I see with City is a team will rely on having only one to attack, without the options and variety in their squad to offer something different, like Dzeko did. It’s too one-dimensional. And while it’s a very good dimension, I feel, like last season, teams will find ways of stopping them and City will struggle for answers. And this is in attack!

Defensively this side looks small and weak compared to a United who look like giants. It’s almost like seeing Arsenal 1998-2006 in United and Arsenal 2007-2014 in Man City. The league hasn’t changed in that time and the winners continue to prove to be strong and powerful. Yes the game may have seen to have evolved but the league is won by 1) strength, 2) power and aided by 3) quality. Without the first two you can’t win it. And I’m sorry to say but City don’t look as though they have enough of 1 and 2, to make up for the wealth they have in 3. United appear to have the best balance in those three, followed by Chelsea, who last season proved that this formula works and Spurs who have a lovely balance of the three in their side, but just lack the cutting edge to see it over the line.

Guardiola seems unwilling to embrace the need for size and power and will seek to win it ‘his way’. Unfortunately I feel City will be left trailing United, Chelsea and Spurs this season, leaving them fighting more for the top four, than the title – just like Arsenal.

Until City and Guardiola can prove that they can actually win the title playing in this way, with this type of player and approach, then I won’t believe it’s possible. Because up until now, it hasn’t been done. Which is why my money is on United to dominate the league this year and prove that in the battle between big and small, big wins in England.

By The Whitehouse Address