At the end of Manchester United’s game at Old Trafford on Saturday, Jose Mourinho half-jokingly said he had finally lost to Arsenal. In truth, of course, his unbeaten record against Arsene Wenger’s side goes on, as Olivier Giroud’s header only felt like it inflicted defeat on the Red Devils.
Mourinho as he leaves the room: “So finally I lost against Arsenal. Finally I lost against Arsenal. Finally I lost against Arsenal.”
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) November 19, 2016
In fact it was a smashed-and-grabbed equaliser, robbing Mourinho‘s men of what would have seemed a deserved victory.
It was, as moments at Old Trafford go for United fans, distinctly in the “not fun” category. However, while the league table tells ugly truths about the Red Devils’ chances of glory this season—six points off fourth place and nine off the lead—the truth is that their new manager has made one key change from Louis van Gaal‘s time in charge.
United are fun again. Not the finished article, not world beaters yet and not where they would want to be in the league, but a team with plenty of ability and attacking intent which—especially at home—has made them a vastly more entertaining prospect than they were last season.
In Manchester United’s last three home games, they have had 74 shots to only 19 by their opponents. Score: 2-2, 3 draws. “Not performing.”
— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) November 21, 2016
The numbers bear out this assertion. If we take as a thesis the notion that a team trying to score a lot of goals is the baseline for entertainment, then the fact United have had 74 shots on goal in their last three league games tells a profound story.
And they were hardly just a bunch of random long-shots either. A very decent 25 of those were on target.
Of course it is a big problem for Mourinho and his team that only two of those 74 shots have resulted in goals. But for those in attendance, while it is frustrating to see a side repeatedly knocking on the door without success, it is infinitely preferable to the antiseptic, lifeless football served up for much of last season.
So many times in the 2015/16 campaign after a dull first half had been played out goalless, the public address system at Old Trafford would kick in with “Glory Glory Man United,” and it would feel profoundly ironic. There was no glory in what was happening on the pitch.
Fans want their team to win, of course, and there is a lot of work left to be done on that score. However, the chance of seeing some entertaining football is a huge part of the draw. “We would rather lose 4-3 than draw 0-0,” might be an overstatement, but Mourinho‘s United have consistently sought to attack and entertain in their home games.
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Having Ibrahimovic in the team increases its fun factor.
This is partly about personnel. Having Paul Pogba in midfield and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front is a sure-fire way to up the entertainment value of any side. That is a luxury Van Gaal did not have.
However, the style of play is an obvious point of difference too. There are still passages of play where the Van Gaal hangover is in effect, moments when the team opt for simple sideways passes rather than more penetrative fare, but they are diminishing, and those shot numbers tell part of that story.
The poster child for the change in approach is Antonio Valencia. It was the Dutchman who converted him into a full-time full-back, but Mourinho has taken that conversion and added an entirely new dimension. Against Arsenal he was made man of the match by Gary Neville on Sky Sports, and it was easy to see why.
Manchester United both the more attacking & most effective team. Only Cech’s excellence and an unawarded penalty kept score level. #MUNARS
— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) November 19, 2016
He was bombastic on the right-flank, breaking forward with the kind of power and purpose not seen in him since well before Sir Alex Ferguson retired. And the change is not just subjective, but quantifiable too. He is averaging considerably more dribble attempts per 90 minutes of league football than he was last season—three to last time out’s 2.2.
During the first half against Arsenal he made a memorable run, exploiting a moment in which the Gunners had switched off a little. He seized the opportunity and injected a profound change of pace into the game. In the end nothing came of his attempt, but it was the kind of moment that gets a crowd off its seats.
It was the kind of moment which signifies that something fundamental has changed in United’s approach. They clearly have licence to express themselves in a way they did not under Van Gaal.
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Van Gaal ended on a high at Wembley, but his team was not much fun to watch.
There have, of course, been a couple of exceptions to this general approach, just as there were games under the previous regime that saw some decent entertaining football. Mourinho‘s bus was at least parking-spot adjacent against Liverpool at Anfield in October, if not fully parked.