Jose Mourinho has long been the master of making the most of good fortune and he proved so again in the win over West Ham
In his post-match press conference following victory over West Ham, Jose Mourinho was unequivocal.
Asked which decisions had helped Manchester United gain another three points in a sixth Premier League victory on the bounce, the manager was swift in his response.
It was, he made clear, nothing to do with the referee Mike Dean that United had returned north with all the spoils:
” Which decisions? My decisions to play Mata at half-time & Rashford later? Thank you very much.”
It is one of the certainties of a football coach’s belief system that, when things are going badly, it is the fault of outside forces. The fixture schedulers, the referees, the groundsmen, or a conspiracy of everyone and everything: these are the forces against which a manager works.
But when things are going well it is a different matter. Then luck plays no part. It is shrewdness, organisation, good coaching that propels the team forward.
But the fact is, if United had been as unlucky as Mourinho claimed earlier in the season when marooned in a lengthy sequence of home draws, then boy did they get lucky at the London Stadium.
Two critical decisions swung the game their way: the home side being reduced to ten men after a quarter of an hour when Dean decided to show a straight red card to Sofiane Kaghouli for what looked like nothing more than a feisty fifty-fifty challenge. And then the linesman turning myopic when standing in line with three United players clearly in offside positions ahead of one of them scoring.
That was someone up there smiling on the visitors.
That was luck.
And United needed that luck. For much of the game there was little evidence of the smooth, progressive football which has latterly advanced the side up the Premier League table, close to challenging for a Champions League spot. They looked sluggish and off the pace.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so pivotal in recent weeks, summed up the malaise with his over-elaborate, desperately slow build-up play and the manager claimed his players were “exhausted” after a run of three fixtures in six days. In which case fortune smiled on the knackered.
But while it cannot be denied that he benefitted from a benevolent turn of events, of this there can be no doubt: Mourinho made the most of his moment. This is what he has long marked him out as a strategist: he can immediately adapt to exploit circumstance.
When Real Madrid played Manchester United in the Champions League at Old Trafford in the spring of 2013, Alex Ferguson was incandescent when Nani was sent off for a high challenge. At the time it seemed a decision as perverse as the one which saw Feghouli dismissed. Certainly it was one which undermined the widely followed conspiracy theory that United are singularly and institutionally favoured by refereeing decisions.
The interesting thing was, however, what Mourinho did while Ferguson fumed.
As the United boss grew redder in the face in his apoplectic response to refereeing misjudgement, the Madrid manager went to work. Even as Fergie raged, Mourinho planned. You could see him on the touchline organising his team. And he took immediate advantage by sending on a substitute to exploit the holes down the left hand side of the United system exposed by the enforced removal of Nani.
Too busy ranting, Ferguson did nothing to regroup. By the time he had wiped the spittle from his mouth, the match was underway again. And within moments, Madrid had seized what turned out to be the winner, scored by the very substitute Mourinho had just sent on.
The Portuguese has long proven a master of grabbing by the throat any luck-borne initiative. Even from the distance of the managerial dug outs at the London Stadium, Mourinho could see what was happening.
Spotting that Slaven Bilic had reorganised to play effectively without a centre-forward, he pushed Michael Carrick back knowing he would not be tested for pace or strength and could deliver telling quarter-back passes from out of defence. He first brought on Juan Mata to add extra fluency in the centre midfield and then asked Marcus Rashford to stretch the ten men of West Ham to the maximum by hugging the left touchline. Both strategies worked to perfection, Rashford setting up Mata for the critical first goal.
And before Bilic could wake up to the realisation that his only way to retrieve something from the game was to send on some muscle in the shape of Andy Carroll, Mourinho reorganised again to put Carrick back in midfield and bring on Chris Smalling as an additional defensive shield against the big man.
” He did that a full ten minutes before Bilic had even sent the player on. ”
” It was PHD level management, a masterclass in using resources to exploit advantage. “
As a result, United won easily without playing anything like convincingly.
And Mourinho was right: that wasn’t down to the referee, even one as card-happy as Dean. It was down to the manager making the right calls.