Evolution continues at Man United after Europa League win vs. Ajax last season
UEFA sent their latest technical report to people in the coaching community this week: 35 pages about Manchester United's Europa League final victory over Ajax in Stockholm. It is made up of the opinions of UEFA's six technical observers who were present in Sweden in May: coaches and former players Cristian Chivu, Dejan Stankovic, Ioan Lupescu, Sir Alex Ferguson, Stefan Majewski and Mixu Paatelainen, who comment on tactical trends and evolving styles of football at the elite end of the game.
"From the first whistle, Jose Mourinho's team offered a clear message of their own," the report declares. "With the third touch of the ball, United's Ajax old boy, Daley Blind, directed an angled ball to the head of Marouane Fellaini in opposition territory. Immediately, Ajax's defenders were under pressure. Ander Herrera made an interception, Juan Mata supplied a cross and Andre Onana, the Ajax goalkeeper, collided with Joel Veltman as he sought to clear. The ball landed at the feet of Paul Pogba and he placed a volley narrowly wide. The clock showed just 25 seconds.
"The early pattern was set: United would get the ball forward quickly, press high up the pitch and do their utmost to unsettle an Ajax side with an average age of just 22 years and 282 days: a record for a European final. Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan -- together -- chased down Hakim Ziyech by the corner and Pogba soon made his powerful presence felt too.
"In the first 20 minutes, United just played long balls to put the Ajax defenders under pressure, and it worked."
Opinions were not restricted just to what happened on the pitch, either.
"If United's early control was a concern for Ajax, their supporters did not show it as they outsang their English counterparts," it notes, more criticism of the atmosphere created by United fans. The Ajax end was three-quarters full an hour before the game, but the United end was three-quarters empty as English fans prefer to quaff beer in the bars.
Despite Ajax having possession, United still took the lead after 18 minutes, the always-under-pressure Ajax players making an elementary mistake as one of their throw-ins went straight to the head of Juan Mata.
A few individuals are picked out, with Mata's compatriot Ander Herrera one who warranted a mention. "Herrera was always in front of the defensive line, closing the gaps very quickly. Ajax didn't have any way to get between the lines."
It worked. "In brief, for all of Ajax's first-half possession (66 percent) their movement -- of ball and bodies -- had not been swift enough and the troubles of Peter Bosz's team deepened within three minutes of the restart," the report continues. "From [goalkeeper Sergio] Romero's free-kick up-field, Fellaini kicked on and Sanchez ended up conceding the corner that brought the second goal."
Mourinho won praise from all the observers, with Ferguson stating: "Jose knew exactly how they were going to operate and set his stall out to make it difficult for them by playing the long balls and putting them under pressure to keep turning them back towards their goal. There was a change in tactics from Mourinho. Throughout the season they've had a lot of possession and played a lot of good football but they identified one or two weaknesses, including a lack of experience."
Mourinho had hinted in a prematch interview that "Ajax are going to press hard" and underlined his own confidence in his team, saying, "I don't know if they are able to do what they want to do."
Mourinho had watched Ajax eight times in the lead-up to the final, noting how they won the ball high up the pitch and working on a strategy to counter that. When Mourinho explained his tactics a month later, he said: "If the ball's not there, what are they going to press? For me, beauty is not giving your opponent what they want. There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don't win many titles."
It wasn't the first time Mourinho has gone for a pragmatic approach, with the result more important than the performance. His priority was getting United back into the Champions League and the report noted as much. "Perhaps a defining image of him during the game came as he stood in his technical area squeezing the air as if playing an imaginary accordion: a message to his team to stay compact.
"There was another when Jesse Lingard went to ground in the Ajax penalty box in the closing minutes and Mourinho could be seen screaming at the substitute to get back into a position to defend."
As ever, Mourinho found time to enjoy a lighter moment with one of his favourite players, Marouane Fellaini, spraying water into his mouth during a break in play. Largely because of his manager, Fellaini is full of confidence and enjoying his best spell in his four years at Old Trafford.
In Stockholm, United found a happy end to a difficult first season for Mourinho. Former Inter and Ajax player Chivu saw parallels with Mourinho's Inter side that won the Champions League (Stankovic also played on that team): "I had deja vu. I was seeing the same game that we'd played against Bayern with very good organisation, a very determined team with a lot of aggression who were very strong defensively, with two lines playing men against men in the middle. He [Mourinho] wants to win games and win trophies."
Mourinho got the results he wanted with the players he had last season but has continued to evolve, bringing in more of his preferred giant players, such as Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, while Mkhitaryan is more central to the attacking play this season, seeing more of the ball and creating more goals. Pogba feels happier with Matic instructing him about positioning, Lukaku is scoring goals, and there have been enough encouraging signs from younger forwards Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to suggest that consistency will one day make them among the best.
Mourinho will be their harshest critic if he feels his United side isn't putting the required effort in as he continues, slowly but surely, to improve Manchester United, though it may be awhile before the next UEFA final technical report sings his praises.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.