Jose Mourinho has helped turn Manchester United into the kings of the counter-attack. It could be critical to their chances in the Premier League and in Europe, writes Adam Bate.
“On the counter-attack they are good with their pace,” said West Ham’s Slaven Bilic. His side were beaten 4-0 on the opening weekend. The same fate befell Paul Clement’s Swansea. “They punished us,” he said. “We were 2-0 down, but a loose pass, they are so strong on the counter-attack.” It has been one of the themes of Manchester United’s season so far.
According to Opta, United have had more fast breaks than any other side this season, scoring from two of them. That is as many as the rest of the Premier League combined. The sample size is small but the data supports what is noticeable to the naked eye. Jose Mourinho’s men appear to be a much more dynamic proposition this term.
It is some transformation from the methodical days of his predecessor. At their best, Louis van Gaal’s United controlled position and possession. At their worst, this was a turgid team in need of a major overhaul despite years of overspending. Mourinho, at one time surely the consummate coach, instead took to talking in terms of transfer windows. It had to change.
“It is a difficult situation to change the dynamics,” he said soon after taking over. “It would be easier for me to have 20 new players and start from zero. For two years, they had some principles of play that are not mine. Clearly, they are not. Of course, after two years of work, there are things in their brain that are automatic, and that is difficult to change.”
New personnel have helped, although Marcus Rashford broke through under Van Gaal and Anthony Martial, the scorer of a goal on the counter-attack at Swansea, was a high-profile signing by the Dutchman. Curiously, it is the replacement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a headline Mourinho buy, that has seen United morph into something altogether more potent.
Something more recognisably Manchester United.
Ibrahimovic was the team’s target man last season and a key figure. But Romelu Lukaku’s propensity to run in behind has added a new dimension to the attack – stretching defences and giving Paul Pogba more space in which to play. Lukaku is now part of an attacking trident that can capitalise with their speed in the latter stages when opponents tire.
That change is evident in the data too. Opta’s sequence metric can help illustrate a team’s passing style by showing the speed at which they progress the ball up the pitch. Measured in metres per second, Manchester United’s speed of attack is up on last season – by more than 10 per cent across the first three matches.
That owes much to Lukaku’s influence. As was obvious against Basel on Tuesday, when his channel running won a corner inside the first minute, he is a player who can quicken the attack. It is no coincidence that, in his absence, Everton direct speed of attack is the lowest in the Premier League at just 0.94 metres per second.
Ibrahimovic still has much to offer, his 28 goals last season are testament to his influence. Expect Mourinho to turn to him again, particularly when United face packed defences and need his presence in the penalty box. But breaking down opponents at Old Trafford is not the only issue that needs addressing from last season if United are to progress.
Not only did United fail to win away to the top eight in the Premier League last season but they also managed to score only twice in those seven matches. Mourinho remains a master at stifling quality opposition, but a greater counter-attacking threat was required to make their containment game more effective. They have it now and that could change everything.
In Europe, there is the prospect of picking up away goals in the Champions League’s latter stages – a vital quality for a team looking to succeed in the competition. Domestically, it could be the difference when games are in the balance. A Lukaku goal against an Everton team they failed to beat home or away last season would hammer home the point nicely.