In the summer of 2016, management changed at Manchester United for the third time in four years when experienced Portuguese boss Jose Mourinho took charge of the club he missed out on in 2013 after Sir Alex Ferguson chose fellow Scotsman David Moyes as his successor.
Experienced Dutchman Louis van Gaal took over at the end of Moyes’ first season due to a seventh place league finish, the worst in the club’s Premier League history, to try to pull United out of the rut however only lasted two somewhat mediocre campaigns because of minimal progress. It is a known fact that Jose Mourinho has admired the Manchester United job for years and now he’s finally reached what is believed to be the pinnacle job of his lengthy career.
Louis van Gaal’s defensive style of play was the cause of huge uproar among supporters and the media throughout his spell at the helm and his incapability to change the way his team played shows that stubbornness played a big part in his early departure.
Van Gaal’s first season was full of highs and lows and included a night to forget in Milton Keynes where, then a Sky Bet League One outfit, MK Dons stunned English football fans when they knocked United out of the Capital One Cup Second Round with a 4-0 victory. A 4th place finish in the 2014/2015 campaign meant the welcome return of UEFA Champions League football to Old Trafford in the following season but that wasn’t enough to convince £60 million flop Angel di Maria to stay in Manchester as the then club-record signing made by van Gaal moved to Paris-Saint Germain during the summer.
“What a waste of money” was a popular choice of newspaper headline when young French forward Anthony Martial signed from AS Monaco for a fee that could potentially rise to £50 million, however, Louis van Gaal’s ‘panic buy’ before the start of 2015/16 seemingly paid off as the 20-year-old was United’s top goal scorer with 17 in all competitions.
The class of 2015/2016 scored the least Premier League goals a Manchester United side ever has in a single term and were ironically pipped to fourth place by noisy neighbours Manchester City. Despite guiding the club to a 12th Emirates FA Cup triumph in May, the board decided to harshly relieve the Dutch coach of his duties just hours after winning the coveted domestic trophy.
After completing the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly in the summer many were tipping Manchester United for the Premier League title but lacklustre home form has been an unexpected issue in Jose Mourinho's first season. It's been so poor that United now find themselves all but out of the title race and now face a fight for a top four spot after frustrating home draws against Stoke City, Burnley, Arsenal and West Ham United where the home side dominated yet missed an unforgivable amount of chances.
At the start of December Mourinho's side found themselves in 6th place in the Premier League and 11 points behind leaders Chelsea so it was clear that the Christmas period was a make or break month that would possibly define their season, the Reds still sit in 6th place however after three straight league victories find themselves just four points behind Arsenal who are occupying the final UEFA Champions League place.
In this feature, we take a closer look at what has exactly changed on the pitch so far under Jose Mourinho in comparison to what we saw under Louis van Gaal...
Possession and passing style
Manchester United were constantly slated throughout the whole duration of last season by the media and supporters for being very 'boring' due to a protective style of passing play encouraged by now-retired controversial manager Louis van Gaal, and if you were to go ahead and take a quick look at the truly shocking statistics of the 2015/2016 Barclays Premier League campaign it's reasonably easy to understand why the board ended his tenure as boss one year earlier than expected.
16% (3222) of the Reds' 20,071 completed passes last term either went sideways in a lateral direction or towards their own goal which is most likely to be the reason why van Gaal now holds the unwanted record of being manager of the lowest league-scoring United side in history with just 49 goals, the record was previously held by Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1989/1990 First Division season (46).
Unlike his predecessor, Jose Mourinho has made sure that his player's first thought on the pitch is always forward when they're on the ball and that mindset has definitely shown as success from the wings seems to be a common occurrence so far this season. After 10 games, United had whipped in the second most crosses in the league (181) while only 119 were hit at the same stage last season (17th) and it's not like it's a failing tactic as seven of the team's league goals under Mourinho have been from crossing positions.
The Old Trafford club have also enjoyed more time off the ball with an average 53.2% in comparison to the 55.1% in van Gaal's last year at the helm while the passing accuracy is slightly higher under the Portuguese manager (85%), the second best in the Premier League.
If you have been watching Manchester United recently then you would be familiar with the regular showing of less passing, more shooting so far in the 2016/2017 and the fact that the Red Devils have made 6854 passes, 932 fewer than at this stage in 2015, backs up that observation perfectly so even though they aren't having as much of the ball there is actually more being done with it than in the previous campaign.
United having less possession has been a rarity in recent history but it's easy to know why if you look at the work rate statistics from the start of the season, the Red Devils ranked 20th in the distance covered charts after the first five games by covering just 526.6 kilometres and it's unclear whether this is the direction that Jose Mourinho wants to go in, working off the ball like Leicester City did resulting in their astonishing title win, but if he wants to change the players are going to have to work a bit harder despite fans appearing pretty content with the intense style play currently in force.
Manchester United have scored 24 league goals so far this season, three greater than at this stage in the previous term which doesn't sound like many more however links with chance creation as well, and it's no surprise seen as though Mourinho's men have attempted nearly 100 more shots than what van Gaal's side did at Christmas 2015 (271 shots over last year's 178).
United sit in 4th in the current attempted efforts leaderboard behind Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City which is a huge improvement compared to the standings this time last season when the team were as low as 17th which really highlights the club's previous manager's highly negative tactics and is a huge reason why there is a new boss in the Old Trafford dugout for this campaign.
Bearing in mind the capture of the 12th FA Cup in the football club's famous history seven months ago, if the team simply showed a bigger desire to score goals and entertain spectators there wouldn't really have been any need to sack the Dutchman despite the 5th place Premier League finish and the disappointing UEFA Champions League group stage exit.
There have been too many matches at Old Trafford so far in the 2016/2017 campaign where fans came out of the stadium stunned at how the team hadn't come away with all three points instead of just one earned from a draw, and stalemates against the likes of Stoke City and Burnley saw so many shots in United's favour however big players including Zlatan Ibrahimovic failing to put the ball into the net on numerous occasions.
The Reds have averaged 15.9 shows per game so far this season under Jose Mourinho's new attacking influence, and with more firepower in the final third after the acquisitions of players like Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan, which is a great improvement from last season's somewhat underwhelming average of 10.5 after 17 matches. Mourinho's men have had plenty of shots since August that's for sure, and if the chances created were taken more often then the team would be much closer to the title as they are now but there is ground to make up and if the shots keep on coming it's likely that the goals will as well.
Emphasis must be placed on 'if the chances were taken more often' because under van Gaal it was painful to watch due to the distinct lack of a risky approach leading to goal opportunities whilst under Mourinho the amount of times the team have missed out on scoring as a result of a failure to put away chances has been equally as hurtful from a supporter's point of view.
You'd have thought a big team in the first tier of the English football hierarchy like Manchester United would pose a great threat in the final third even with a defensive-minded manager, right? Wrong. In 2015/2016, van Gaal's attacking instructions led to the Reds creating 130 chances in the first 17 league games which was embarrassingly the 18th most in the division behind teams such as eventually relegated Aston Villa and Norwich City.
Mourinho, however, seems to have found a way to let his side's offensive fluids flow as well as having a formidable defence. 196 chances have been made by Zlatan and co so far this season, 66 more than this time last term, however only 17 have been converted and despite the star man in the centre of the park Paul Pogba pulling off 23 key passes since his return, the Frenchman has only registered two assists which truly highlights the team's habit of 'bottling it' in front of goal.
A cemented midfield
Louis van Gaal tended to switch his midfield about every week during his two-year stay and the fact that he signed a total of six players that were capable of featuring in the central midfield role didn't exactly benefit his selection headache. Throughout 2014/15 the Dutchman was just getting to know his squad and therefore experimented with different formations along the course of the campaign with 3-5-2, 4-1-2-1-2 and 4-3-3 most commonly used, all midfield-conjesting set-ups.
New additions like Ander Herrera, Angel di Maria and Daley Blind as well as more experienced Reds Juan Mata, Darren Fletcher, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Ashley Young were rotated throughout the whole of his first season and there was never really a cemented midfield which meant that the club had a certain case of lost identity in the centre of the park.
The now-popular 4-2-3-1 formation came into play for round about the whole of last term which saw places in central midfield decrease however rotation stayed the same after United acquired Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin's services a day before flying out to America for pre-season 2015.
The two holding positions were predominantly shared between Michael Carrick and the proclaimed 'Schmidfield' so there wasn't a clear pairing which contributed to van Gaal's side's inconsistency and saw the Reds finish in a lacklustre fifth position, leading to his sacking in May. Now Jose Mourinho is in charge and despite early struggles with form along with a constantly changed starting XI leading to criticism from pundits like Paul Scholes over having "no identity", Manchester United are picking up form with many suggesting it's to do with the choices in midfield.
The 53-year-old manager has had several central midfielders to choose since he took over at the helm but, unlike his predecessor van Gaal, he's made it extremely clear which players he intends to utilise and those who aren't in his plans. Herrera, Pogba and Fellaini were the favoured midfield trio in the opening fixtures of the season when United veteran Michael Carrick wasn't getting a look in because of his "inability" to play every week according to his manager.
After stealing the show in an early EFL Cup tie against Northampton Town, however, the Wallsend-born holding midfielder now features regularly in the place of Fellaini sitting behind the other two which is noticeably improving both Herrera and especially Paul Pogba's games. Ever since Jose Mourinho decided on a set three in the middle, United's results have taken a huge turn for the better and they now find themselves slowly closing in on a top four place that looked highly in doubt just a few weeks ago.
So to recap, what can we see has changed in the months since management changed at Manchester United? Mourinho is more focused on creating the chances rather than keeping the ball and finding gaps that would ensure chances are finished while United this season seem a lot happier to play off the ball and then use technical ability to outplay opponents.
We are also seeing slightly less youth so far this term which sounds like a bad thing considering the Portuguese's reputation to mistreat young talent, however, it actually shows that squad depth has been balanced much better while Louis van Gaal was letting his players go left, right and centre leaving reserve players such as Joe Riley to play as back-up instead of ready-made talent.
Some will say that the low amount of distance Mourinho's players cover is lazy but energy retention for the more senior squad members like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick, both key players, could be the key to keeping them fit and is the probable answer to why they can play every game. The new style of play is definitely pleasing fans and the United faithful will definitely welcome the recent reports of Jose Mourinho wanting to stay at the club for the long-haul.