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23rd Oct 2017

Huddersfield exploited a major flaw in Jose Mourinho’s approach

Mourinho can blame a poor attitude, but there's more to it than that

Robert Redmond

Jose Mourinho blamed the attitude of his players for Manchester United’s loss on Saturday.

United fell to a 2-1 defeat away to Huddersfield Town and Mourinho turned on his team after the match. “I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor,” he said.

“When I lose matches, I like to lose because the opponent was better and had more quality. But when you lose because of attitude, that is really bad.”

It’s possible that individual errors, a poor attitude or the difficult conditions were to blame for United’s first loss of the season, a defeat that means they’re now five points behind Manchester City. But, as is often the case, Mourinho’s post-match comments are designed to deflect. It’s much easier to blame a poor attitude than to try explain why a team with infinitely less resources just beat your side. It could be argued that Mourinho’s tactical approach can explain United’s defeat.

Firstly, if it was the case that the players’ “attitude” was poor, then maybe that also reflects on Mourinho. It’s quite possible the team aren’t brimming with confidence after being instructed not to move past the half-way line against Liverpool. The United players weren’t trusted to score against one of the leakiest defences in the league, their approach made Dejan Lovren look like Franco Baresi and they weren’t allowed to attack the oceans of space Alberto Moreno leaves when he goes forward.

If there was any reason to be fearful of Liverpool, then this would have been an understandable approach. However, Spurs showed in their 4-1 win over Liverpool on Sunday that there is little merit in suggesting United were right to camp in their own half at Anfield the previous week. It cost them two points, stunted their momentum and told the players that their manager doesn’t trust them enough to score against a side gifting goals. A week later, they’re five points behind City.

Away from individual errors and the attitude of his players, it could be argued that United lost because Huddersfield recognised a flaw in Mourinho’s approach.

In September 2010, when he was Real Madrid manager, Mourinho’s side played out a goalless draw away to Levante. Madrid had 68 percent possession in the match, but couldn’t find a goal. According to Spanish journalist Diego Torres:

“Levante’s game plan was an exercise in renunciation, a strange approach in the Spanish league, where pride in retaining possession of the ball usually prevails over any recognition of inferiority, any dedication to defending or playing on the break. Directed by Sergio Ballesteros, Levante sat back, allowed their opponents to have the ball and dug an impassable trench. They had just three shots on Casillas’s goal, each going wide. But Madrid only managed two shots on target. Never again that season did they have fewer than three shots at goal, proof of the success of Levante’s tactics, and a symptom of the deficiencies in Madrid’s functioning that would persist in subsequent years.”

Huddersfield took the Levante approach on Saturday. David Wagner’s team have averaged 47 percent possession in games this season, but against United they had just 22 percent possession, their lowest total of the season so far. Their passing accuracy has been an average of 75 percent this season, but it was just 55 percent against United, another season low figure. They have averaged 211 touches in the opposition half in games this season. Against United they had just 139 touches in the opposition half, again their lowest total of any game this season. They clearly tailored their tactics for the United match.

Against Spurs, Huddersfield played with a high line and were punished, losing 4-0. Wagner wasn’t going to let this happen again and altered his approach. Huddersfield had a plan and knew how to hurt United. They let them have the ball, broke quickly when they won possession and took their chances. The result was United were stodgy in possession, creating just five chances, down from an average of 10 in their eight previous league games. They had just six shots, three on target, to show for their dominance of the ball. Huddersfield showed that when you hand Mourinho’s teams the initiative, when you cede possession, they can struggle.

To understand why Mourinho can find it difficult against a team deploying Huddersfield’s approach, we just have to look at what he said following the goalless draw at Anfield.

“I think he [Jurgen Klopp] did well, honestly. He didn’t let the game break. Lingard and Rashford were waiting for the game to be broken but the game wasn’t broken.”

The United manager needs the game to “break” – for the opposition to make an error so his side can capitalise on it. As Ken Early wrote in The Irish Times, “For Mourinho, it’s (winning) something that happens when your opponent does the wrong thing.”

It’s no wonder that Mourinho bemoans the loss of individuals such as Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, or why he seems obsessed with signing players over 6ft. Both are unique players capable of exploiting weaknesses in the opposition with their physicality, they can score from set-pieces or with a moment of magic. Mourinho relies on set-pieces, and individual moments, to beat teams. Like, for example, the Europa League final last May, when United willingly ceded possession to Ajax, and scored from a deflected Pogba shot and then from a corner.

Mourinho’s idea of play is ultimately reactionary, and thus his teams can struggle when forced to take the initiative. This isn’t to say they will always fail to beat teams deploying Huddersfield’s tactics. Not every team will play as well as they did on Saturday, but Wagner’s side did highlight a flaw in Mourinho’s idea of play. In two games, the limits of this reactionary approach have been highlighted. If this continues to happen, United will slip further behind City.

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