Why Jose Mourinho's Manchester United Are Definitely More Fun Than Van Gaal's

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2016

It's not just the goal celebrations that are more fun this season.
It's not just the goal celebrations that are more fun this season.ANTHONY DEVLIN/Getty Images

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.

Miguel Delaney @MiguelDelaney

Mourinho as he leaves the room: "So finally I lost against Arsenal. Finally I lost against Arsenal. Finally I lost against Arsenal."

In fact it was a smash-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 that—especially at home—has made them a vastly more entertaining prospect than they were last season.

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.

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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.

Having Ibrahimovic in the team increases its fun factor.
Having Ibrahimovic in the team increases its fun factor.Athena Pictures/Getty Images

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.

Duncan Castles @DuncanCastles

Manchester United both the more attacking & most effective team. Only Cech's excellence and an unawarded penalty kept score level. #MUNARS

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 seat.

It was the kind of moment that 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.

Van Gaal ended on a high at Wembley, but his team was not much fun to watch.
Van Gaal ended on a high at Wembley, but his team was not much fun to watch.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

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.

But even during that game, while they repeatedly surrendered possession of the ball, ending up with just 35.4 per cent of it, they only took two fewer shots on goal than their opponents. There were periods of the match, particularly the first 20 minutes or so of the second half where their attack was pressing ferociously against the home side, and it nearly bore fruit. 

The makeup of Mourinho's typical midfield is another signifier of a different, more-attacking intent.

Van Gaal would often select two of Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to play together in a 4-2-3-1. This was even the case at home against sides United could comfortably have expected to dominate.

Schweinsteiger and Carrick made for a pretty dull midfield.
Schweinsteiger and Carrick made for a pretty dull midfield.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

This frequently meant no midfielder would break ahead of the ball when United were circulating possession among themselves. It is hardly any wonder the team became so predictable so much of the time.

Pogba has started every league game, and any midfield in which he is a member will have at least some attacking purpose. Ander Herrera has recently become his default partner in a two-man midfield. While he has been set a more defensive brief—and stuck to it admirably—the balance of the duo is vastly more dynamic than Van Gaal's alternative.

And that makes United a lot more fun to watch.

When Carrick was added to the mix alongside Pogba and Herrera against Arsenal, Herrera was freed up to roam, rather than being asked to sit alongside the experienced Englishman. It was a true 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba at No. 10.

What could have been a defensive move turned into one that allowed more attacking intent. This was rewarded when Herrera was far enough up the pitch to cut the ball back to Juan Mata for United's goal.

Juan Mata celebrates his goal against Arsenal.
Juan Mata celebrates his goal against Arsenal.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

When Mourinho was appointed, there was some fear that he would compromise United's attacking traditions. However overstated those traditions may be, the truth is the Old Trafford crowd really does want to see their team properly go for it. It reacts when they do and has had plenty of opportunity to do so this season.

The cry of "Attack-attack-attack!" that permeated the Stretford End for so much of Van Gaal's time in charge has been rendered unnecessary by the change in approach.

Of course, this additional attacking purpose and fun factor will not keep Mourinho in fans' good books in the long run if results do not improve, but it should be emphasised that his United are much more enjoyable to watch than his predecessors were.

Having asked for more attacking football, it is worth United fans appreciating the fact it has arrived.


Advanced data per WhoScored.com.

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