If you ever wanted to know how United’s new coaches are settling in, then what happened on the bench after Chris Smalling’s stunning volley against Watford tells its own story.
As the centre-back fired the ball into the roof of the net, the coaching team rose in unison. Mourinho was immediately mobbed by Kieran McKenna, a boyhood United fan, before he shook him off and then pulled him in again for another embrace as Michael Carrick smiled and punched the air.
United had been working on these kind of set-piece routines at Carrington for a while now and seeing that creation come to life at Vicarage Road was a big moment for this new-look backroom team.
After losing longtime assistant Rui Faria earlier this summer, many wondered whether Mourinho would embrace the fresh ideas McKenna and Carrick brought to the table.
Slowly, we are beginning to see their influence. Yes, United may have triumphed because they made the most of set-pieces – Ashley Young’s delivery and Marouane Fellaini’s mere presence have always caused havoc – but at various points in the last three games we have seen some encouraging signs.
The pressing, the runs in behind, the quick passing and shots creation against Spurs and Burnley..is it any wonder the players have enjoyed training of late?
“They’ve got new ideas and the fact that they were already with the club – Michael as a player – they’re great guys to have about,” Chris Smalling told MEN Sport.
“It’s brilliant that we’ve got coaches we all respect and like.”
Eagle-eyed fans may have noticed subtle changes in United’s warm-up this season as McKenna, Carrick and Stefano Rapetti take centre stage. Here is what they did ahead of the Watford game:
4.53pm: United’s outfield players emerge some 10 minutes after goalkeepers David de Gea, Sergio Romero and Lee Grant started their preparations. The players immediately start exchanging quick fire passes with each other, regardless of whether they are starting or not.
4.57pm: The group splits in two. Rapetti takes the starters into a tight square for their warm-up while fitness coach Carlos Lalin brings the substitutes over to the opposite side of the pitch. The two groups do near-identical exercises as they line up in five banks of two and jog/do sprint intervals in a straight line.
Rapetti takes up a position in between the two lines, with McKenna and Carrick both observing, and physically guides the players on what to do, whether it is raising their leg or jogging side to side. The Italian barks and claps as they do this with the intensity picking up with each new motion and as they get closer to the edge of the box.
5.03pm: After Rapetti is finished, a number of players – Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia and Smalling – are handed bibs by Carrick. These will be the players who will be in the middle for the rondos (piggy in the middle).
5.04pm: Carrick and McKenna gather the players in a huddle for a pep talk ahead of starting the exercise. Rapetti takes a watching brief. De Gea and the goalkeepers head back to the dressing room after they complete their warm-ups.
5.07pm: After a few minutes of rondos, the groups are again split. McKenna takes the defenders away while Carrick is in charge of the midfielders and attackers. McKenna lines up the back line as a unit and plays a series of quick return passes before sending in an avalanche of high balls to test them in the air. Carrick occasionally chips in with the attacking drills – how the midfield and attack combine before a shot on goal – with the first pass of a team move.
5.13pm: Players and staff leave the field to chants of ‘United! United! United!’ from the away end.
Let’s make one thing clear – these are all simple tasks coaches are paid to do – but that is not the point. Mourinho trusts his new lieutenants enough to let them lead the warm-up without feeling the need to be on the pitch himself.
The Portuguese recognises, too, that just as he can pass on his experience to Carrick and McKenna, they can help him evolve, too.