Jose Mourinho’s appointment has brought hopes, expectations and doubts among the United faithful, as he promises to revive the glory of the Ferguson era and help fans forget the past 3 years. Mourinho’s arrival has led to numerous world class players being linked with the club, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who wins the league everywhere he goes. However, speculation as to which players will make the cut and subsequently form the core of Mourinho’s side has also increased. In this article, I analyze three players who I believe could play a crucial role for Jose Mourinho and form a part of his integral core as we attempt to become a world-beating force once again.
Perhaps van Gaal’s biggest success story came in the form of Chris Smalling. Having established himself as one of the best defenders in the Premier League, Smalling is set to lead the charge from the back under Jose Mourinho. But with the arrival of Eric Bailly, is there any doubting Smalling’s place as center back in a title contending United side led by Mourinho?
The graph above shows Smalling’s defensive performance last season compared to the Chelsea backline’s performance in their 2014/15 title win. Cahill was Chelsea’s best defender when it came to defensive actions (interceptions, blocked shots, clearances) and fared marginally better than Smalling last season. Smalling, however, is comfortably ahead of John Terry, who was Chelsea’s second-best defender in terms of defensive actions, notching about 7.5 per 90 minutes of football. When it comes to winning duels, (aerials, take-ons, tackles) Smalling finds himself behind Ivanovic, who had a spectacular season at fullback in 2014/15. However, the United stopper is comfortably ahead of Chelsea’s second best defender in that department, Gary Cahill. It’s fair to conclude that Smalling is more than capable of matching the world’s best defenders under Mourinho, and these statistics have made me optimistic enough to believe that by the end of next season, the English stopper will be widely accepted as one of the best defenders in the world.
Morgan Schneiderlin had an underwhelming first season at Manchester United, raising speculation among some that he’s not good enough to play under Mourinho. The Special One demands consistent performances from his defensive midfielders, as we have seen in the past with the likes of Claude Makelele, Sulley Muntari, and, more recently, Nemanja Matic. In order to gauge Schneiderlin’s calibre as a defensive midfielder, I considered Schneiderlin’s performances in his last season at Southampton and juxtaposed them with the likes of Nemanja Matic in that same season, and Xabi Alonso in Mourinho’s last season as Real Madrid manager (2012/13).
Schneiderlin’s performances for Southampton shed a light on his true potential as a central defensive midfielder, in terms of winning duels and helping keep things tidy at the back. Mourinho’s history with defensive midfielders has been illustrious. It’s clear that he will expect a lot of work off the ball, but passing ability will matter too. Here’s a comparison of Schneiderlin in his last season at Southampton with Matic in the same season and Alonso in Mourinho’s last season as Real Madrid manager.
These comparisons highlight Schneiderlin’s competence in defensive contributions. When juxtaposed with Matic, Schneiderlin shows more than adequate defensive ability when it comes to tackles and interceptions. The importance of this ability is stressed with Alonso, whose primary strength is in possession. Under Mourinho, even Alonso was heavily involved in defensive activities as is reflected by the statistics above.
It’s no surprise to see Alonso better the two Premier League destroyers when it comes to ball distribution. The Spaniard’s passes are superior in number as well as length, albeit not by much. Schneiderlin is no pushover in that department, however; he notched slightly more (and longer) passes than Matic, and had the best accuracy out of the three. When it comes to key passes (passes that led to a chance), Alonso boasts a far superior 1.8 per game. Schneiderlin betters Matic in that department, showing that he does occasionally pick out a pass that leads to a chance. Having noted Alonso’s superiority, we can comfortably assume that Scnheiderlin will partner an adept passer and recycler of the ball in midfield, not too different from the Matic-Fabregas partnership that won Mourinho the title at Chelsea.
One United stalwart who has been the subject of harsh (and in my opinion, slightly unfair) criticism is Wayne Rooney. An 8 goal season meant the striker has finally failed to take his tally to double digits for the club. But how much is Rooney to blame for his drought? Is it fair to say that Rooney is no longer a top finisher? Rooney had 28 shots from within the area last season, and scored 7 goals from those, averaging a goal every 4 shots from within the area. In comparison, Harry Kane averages a goal every 4.56 shots from within the area, Jamie Vardy stands at 4.13 and wonderkid Anthony Martial, who finished as United top scorer, averages 4.09. Yes, Rooney has had 44 cracks from outside the area and scored only once, which is a lower return than many others who have fancied themselves from range. Van Gaal must be answerable as to why Rooney had only 28 shots from within the area all season long, whereas Kane and Vardy had 105 and 95 respectively.
An analysis of Rooney’s performance as midfielder in the final 3 games of the season begs the question as to what his best position is. In an action packed FA Cup semi-final against Everton, Wayne Rooney made 55 passes with a staggering 93% accuracy. He continued to run the show in the cup final, completing a Kroos-esque 88 passes at 88% accuracy, and notching an excellent match-high 5 dribbles. His best game as a midfielder came against Bournemouth, where he completely bossed the midfield making 100 passes at 88% accuracy, scoring the first goal, making that typical Rooney-to-Valencia cross-field pass for the second and playing a delightful chipped through ball to Young for the third. In these 3 games, Rooney averaged 76.66 passes a game, easily surpassing his season average of 40.5 and Fabregas’s league high average of 70. Yes, none of these opponents are top tier teams and Rooney is sure to have testing times against the likes of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. But for team, and now country, Rooney has showed his potential to dominate the center of the park.
Jose Mourinho will be given a large transfer budget and fans will have grand expectations from the managerial great. However, we shouldn’t forget he has an excellent, albeit underutilized squad at his disposal. Mourinho must realise the potential of the senior players in the team if he wishes to win a Premier League title, because that is where Louis van Gaal failed so miserably.