Two weeks ago, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United were wallowing away in sixth place in the Premier League. They had drawn three straight games, had won just once in their last seven Premier League games, and had drawn four straight home matches, the first time that had happened since the early 90s.
Today, United are still wallowing away in sixth place but they’ve won three in a row and look like a side that’s finally started to click. Granted, two of three wins were still too close for comfort and were very close to being draws but three points is three points and after four months it’s finally fair to ask if Jose Mourinho has figured it out at Manchester United.
Mourinho has figured things out in Manchester, but that statement comes with a huge asterisk as all he’s figured out are things the rest of us have already known.
It starts with Michael Carrick, as it always does. Manchester United are a better team when he plays. To put it simply, United seem to win when he plays, and they don’t win when he doesn’t.
Somehow everyone has been aware of that except for United’s last two managers. Louis van Gaal spent two years looking for excuses to not to play Carrick and was not going to offer him a new contract for this season had he been here as manager. Mourinho was quick to offer Carrick a new deal, and just as quick to banish him to the bench.
Following Van Gaal’s first season in Manchester, the manager went searching for replacements for Carrick, bringing in players like Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. On the surface these moves made sense. Carrick is getting old and won’t be able to play forever and thus United need to find his replacement sooner rather than later.
Van Gaal had the right idea in bringing in those two players but failed to execute it. All three players, plus United, are at their best when playing as a lone holding midfielder. Van Gaal’s insistence on always playing two holding midfielders never allowed any of them to be at their best. Under Mourinho, they haven’t even gotten a chance.
Despite giving Carrick a new contract, Mourinho started the season trying his hardest to play anyone else as a holding midfielder. Entering the season, Mourinho seemed hell bent on giving Marouanne Fellaini every chance he could to play, despite there being no statistical evidence that Fellaini should ever be on the field. In fact, United are significantly worse when Fellaini plays, winning just 31 percent of their matches since the start of last season.
Man Utd's Premier League win % since the start of 2015/16:
With Marouane Fellaini = 34.4%
Without Marouane Fellaini = 60.8%
Says it all.
This season, United have won 80 percent of the games that Carrick has started. In Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge, they won 72 percent.
To put it simply, playing Carrick over Fellaini in the center of the park isn’t some stroke of tactical genius. It’s common sense.
But it’s not just the results that have changed since Carrick started playing but rather the form of everyone on the field.
Last summer, Manchester United spent £89 million to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus. For the first three months of the season, Pogba was underwhelming, mostly because Jose Mourinho had no idea how to use him.
He tried him as part of a holding midfield pair, which greatly restricted Pogba’s ability to get forward. He tried him a number 10, but Pogba is at his best with the game in front of him.
Michael Carrick solves that problem. Over the last few games, Carrick has been deployed as the lone holding midfielder which has given Pogba the ability to do what he does best, roam freely around the field.
It’s no coincidence that since Pogba has been given this freedom the Pogba to Ibrahimovic connection has taken off. Since the 1-1 draw at Everton, Pogba has a goal and two assists in all competitions, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has four goals and an assist – on a Pogba goal.
There will be pundits out there who will credit Mourinho for finally figuring things out at United. Mourinho will likely talk about how the players have finally taken to his system.
In reality, all that’s happened is Mourinho is now putting his players in positions where they can be at their best and suddenly Manchester United are winning again. Isn’t it weird how that happens?