LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – New Year’s Day appears to have brought out a different side in Jose Mourinho.
Manchester United ended a four-game, win-less run by defeating Everton 2-0 on Monday, a result that saw the Portuguese coach finally begin to turn back the clock. Lamenting perceived misfortunes provided the soundtrack of the Red Devils’ first half to the Premier League season, but a sunnier disposition already appears to have taken hold of their manager.
Engaging as his team had proved efficient at Goodison Park, this was a glimpse of the old Mourinho; a coach who uses tactics rather than tantrums as his preferred weaponry. Rather than bleating about Manchester City’s embarrassment of riches, he finally focused on his own in the form of goalscorers Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, as well as Paul Pogba, United’s newly-crowned captain who was able to dictate proceedings at will.
“I think even the first half, after 10-15 minutes, the team was in control,” Mourinho said post-match.
“We found a way to play without a player like [Romelu] Lukaku, like Zlatan [Ibtrahimovic], with more dynamic and freedom.
“We couldn’t anticipate that [Everton manager Sam Allardyce] was going to make lots of changes because his squad now has lots of options so he made seven changes.
“We knew that at least an extra midfield player to give us a little bit more consistency in the middle and I think the performance was really good.
“Maybe I’m lucky this time and the kings of rock-and-roll that said I was underperforming in the last match maybe say that this time I performed.”
But those players have always been there for Mourinho – he just refused to look beyond peripheral vision in the totems of a sidelined Lukaku and Ibrahimovic and, more pertinently, an increasing shadow that hangs over his side from across Manchester.
Martial’s first goal in eight games rounded off a performance in which he regularly tormented Everton’s defence from deep, while Lingard’s 11th goal of the season saw him creep ever closer to Lukaku as United’s most influential player for goals and assists this campaign.
Further vindication came Mourinho’s way in a second meeting with Wayne Rooney since their parting of ways over the summer. Appreciation for the Everton forward remains strong among the Old Trafford faithful, as he was serenaded during the opening stages, but little else. Barely 12 months ago, Rooney was facing the dilemma of the Chinese Super League or bust. A return to his boyhood club may have seen him become their leading scorer, with 11 goals in all competitions, but could not mask the continuing ravages of age.
In body, if not mind also, Rooney was reminded as to why he found himself marginalised during the final 18 months of his United career. A willingness to live by the sword eventually saw him cautioned for a cynical foul on Martial that both nullified his positive influence and set him on the path for downfall as his former teammate was able to benefit from his weak concession in his own penalty area in the build-up to the visitors’ well-taken opener.
Allardyce’s Everton revolution, meanwhile, has officially hit the bricks.
His side failed to register a single shot on target for a second successive home game. Since last month’s stalemate with Chelsea at Goodison, Everton have managed just four shots on target from the ensuing three games. What hopes they held of pulling off a shock in Friday’s FA Cup clash with Liverpool faded into obscurity with little positives to be taken from this toothless performance.
Excelling with limited resources was Allardyce’s unique selling point but even he has struggled to perform miracles with a lavish yet imbalanced squad that remains devoid of a proven goal-getter. Those struggles appear destined to continue with negotiations for Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun already appearing on the rocks.
“Our ratio of chances created is very limited and that’s because we need to strengthen that front line. I think we all know that,” Allardyce conceded.
“We’re trying to do the hardest job of all by securing a player in that position. It wasn’t achieved before the start of the season and it may not get achieved this January.
“We’re trying but until that happens, we have to maintain our defensive solidarity and I was very disappointed how we conceded the two goals to Man United, by really giving them the opportunity to score when we didn’t need to.”
Little, if anything, is uncertain in the current Premier League season. City are still on course to end the title procession in record numbers, leaving United and the rest of the chasing pack squinting at Pep Guardiola’s side as little more than a dot on their horizon.
But there are now genuine sights that Mourinho might finally be for turning after all.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Goodison Park Stadium.