Defining the ‘Man United Way’

Steve Nicol wraps up all of Sunday’s Premier League action, with United and Spurs getting much-needed wins and Liverpool and City battling to a breathless 1-1 draw.
Steve Nicol wraps up all of Sunday’s Premier League action, with United and Spurs getting much-needed wins and Liverpool and City battling to a breathless 1-1 draw.

There are two reasons why you might have heard one of the newest chants sung by Manchester United fans. The first is that these supporters remain the Premier League’s nosiest and most consistently impressive away support. And the second is because its lyrics prompt a debate about precisely what Jose Mourinho’s side are all about.

Based on the Herman’s Hermits’ hit song “I’m Into Something Good,” which reached the top of the UK charts amid Beatlemania in 1964, its lyrics are simple and catchy. Against Hull in January, for example, they were sung continually for 10 minutes.

Woke up this morning feeling fine
Got Man United on my mind
Jose’s got us playing the way United should, oh yeah 

Something tells me I’m into something good.

Mourinho appears delighted with the chant, as he told Portuguese TV this week: “The song that the supporters dedicate to me, in contrast to other clubs where the chants were related to my name or Special One, or the Portuguese One; here it’s something where they are feeling good and are happy with the way I am leading them.”

The Old Trafford manager has repeatedly spoken about the importance of creating “a Manchester United DNA” and playing attack-minded football, so this apparent approval from the club’s fans presumably means a lot to him.

In a sense, the chant is comparable to a song sung for David Moyes at the start of his ill-fated reign four years ago in which, to the tune of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize,” supporters called for him to “Play like Fergie’s boys.” That, though, was a request for the team to play in a certain way, whereas the Mourinho tribute is a celebration of playing in a certain way.

But what is the “Manchester United Way,” and how much does it tally with Mourinho’s own approach to the game? A look back suggests that there are elements in the current team’s style of play that are a continuation of approaches in the past.

The beauty of United’s football throughout the Sir Alex Ferguson years, for example, has been somewhat exaggerated. Those were winning teams that sometimes played great football, rather than a great footballing team, which sometimes won.

Ferguson continued the United tradition of playing with great width and, in his early days, of starting games at a high tempo with a focus on getting the ball into attacking zones quickly. But he adjusted his approach as time went by; inevitable, considering his 26 years in charge coincided with sweeping changes to the nature of the game.

He became more pragmatic, more cautious and, occasionally, his sides were actually rather defensive. In European competition, for example, United became masters of controlled, efficient victories rather than wonderful attacking demonstrations. Some of their finest performances came as a counter-attacking side and, while everyone remembers outstanding goals on the break, such an approach also involved long spells of sitting deep and defending solidly.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s success at Manchester United was built on being able to adapt to any situation his team faced.

During 2008-09, United went on an extraordinary Premier League run, in which they kept 14 consecutive clean sheets. Amid some one-sided victories, though, were two 0-0s and eight 1-0 wins. Two seasons later, Ferguson started an FA Cup tie against Arsenal with seven defenders in his line-up: Wes Brown, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, John O’Shea, Rafael and Fabio. United won 2-0.

Ferguson’s United were about getting the job done and he relied heavily upon unglamourous, functional players, who could be relied upon to “do a job” alongside the likes of Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo. The regime was characterised by the likes of Brown, O’Shea, Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck: Homegrown, reliable players who were tactically disciplined, versatile and wouldn’t let anyone down, especially in big games.

The trendsetter for those that followed was Brian McClair, Ferguson’s most underrated player. He was a talented scorer upon his arrival in 1987, scoring 24 league goals in his debut campaign. But McClair increasingly dropped into deeper roles and became renowned for his discipline. Ferguson called him a “brainy player” and one match in 1994-95 against Liverpool showed his value.

United were overrun early in the game, with John Barnes dictating proceedings. After 59 minutes and with the score 0-0, Ferguson introduced McClair, who not only nullified Barnes, but also made dangerous forward runs to expose Jan Molby’s lack of pace. Suddenly United were in control and McClair fittingly scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win.

Ferguson learned one of his most important tactical lessons that day and subsequently plumped for “tactical” players in big games. For example, Roy Keane’s versatility was often crucial over the next couple of campaigns, until Ferguson realised he was needed permanently in central midfield.

Park Ji-Sung was another from that versatile category in Ferguson’s later years, while the closest player to that type in United’s current squad is Jesse Lingard. It’s tough to say precisely at what he excels, but he is tactically disciplined, efficient with the ball and capable of playing in various positions.

He also scores the odd thunderbolt, as witnessed at Middlesbrough on Sunday, but that’s not particularly typical of his style. Lingard is more a player who does a job than a spectacular individualistic talent; the type whose efforts often go under the radar, but who helps win the battle in a particular part of the pitch.

It’s notable that he came through United’s youth system when the academy director was McClair. Lingard was often coached by Nicky Butt and also mixed with first teamers like John O’Shea, as seen in this fantastic footage. McClair, Butt, O’Shea — it’s a footballing education that creates a certain type of player and, while having a fine technique, Lingard is more a responsible tactical weapon. 

And it is this, more than anything, which represents the “Manchester United Way.” At Arsenal, Lingard would face constant questions over his best long-term position, a la Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. At United, the focus will be upon his best position for the upcoming game and he has the ideal manager to make best use of him.

Mourinho’s career has been characterised by turning wide attackers into defensively aware, tactically-disciplined footballers. Lingard somehow represents both the Manchester United way and the Jose Mourinho way. The two are closer in identity than many think, so it’s no surprise that Mourinho’s men are “playing the way United should.'”

Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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