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Jose Mourinho sported a beaming smile as he boarded his team bus on Saturday afternoon. He had just seen Manchester United cruise to a 0-2 pre-season friendly win at Wigan and was given a Portuguese cake by a fan as he departed the DW Stadium.
Mourinho was customarily animated as he prowled the touchline for the first time in a Manchester United tracksuit, providing an element of slapstick entertainment to a game that barely broke out of a light-hearted training session.
Positives included performances from new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who did enough in his 45 minutes to suggest he will be a quality addition when he gets up to speed, Andres Pereira and Axel Tuanzebe, who was singled out by Mourinho for praise after the game despite only playing for 8 minutes.
Luke Shaw played his first football since suffering a double fracture of his right leg against PSV Eindhoven last September, while Eric Bailly, making his debut at centre-half after his £30 million move from Villarreal, looked assured on the ball as he helped United, perhaps most pleasingly of all to Mourinho, to a clean sheet that never looked under threat.
The Ivorian impressed first of all alongside Daley Blind who was moved to left-back at half time as Shaw made way for Phil Jones.
Mourinho’s use of Blind, who was a regular at centre-half under Louis Van Gaal last season, suggests he is not sold on the Dutchman while Jones, who has never really got his United career going since joining from Blackburn in 2011 and has not played since January, starts the campaign under a cloud of uncertainty.
It certainly seems that Mourinho’s bold prediction that his first-choice centre-half pairing will be Chris Smalling and Jones, who started just 7 times for Van Gaal last term, was built on sand.
The 18 year old Tuanzebe may have impressed at Wigan but the circumstances of his manager’s appraisal suggested it was made in the awareness that he must set out quickly to ease concerns that he isn’t the biggest advocate of youth production.
Smalling, one of the few to improve under the two years of Van Gaal’s guidance, will certainly be one of Mourinho’s starting centre-halves but having raised concerns over Bailly’s readiness for Premier League football, it remains to be seen who will partner the 26 year old Englishman at the heart of the back-line.
Change in style?
United conceded 35 goals last term, the joint-lowest total in the league together with Spurs, but such paucity was largely owing to the shackles placed on them in possession by Van Gaal.
Mourinho, indicated by his signings of Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is likely to look to loosen the straightjacket in an attempt to give United, who scored the lowest amount of goals in the Premier League’s top 8 last term with 49, more thrust in attack.
For the forward players to thrive Mourinho, who has always built his successes on rock solid defences and strong organisation, will have to forge a consistently reliable defence.
Behind the happy mood he departed Wigan in, Mourinho may have been toying with the idea of dipping into the transfer market for another centre-half.
The possible defensive centerpiece
That target could be Real Madrid’s 23 year old Raphael Varane, who was signed by Mourinho for Madrid back in 2011. Varane moved to the Bernabeu as a 17 year old and has gone on to win the Champions League twice and captain his country by the age of 23.
Mourinho obviously takes great pride in the two years of tuition he gave the Frenchman, claiming that Bailly, who arrives at Old Trafford at the slightly older age of 22, can tap into his potential enough to be the United version of Varane.
It wouldn’t be implausible for United to lure the already-established version of Varane away from Madrid, where he has reportedly grown frustrated at playing second-fiddle to Sergio Ramos and Pepe under Zinedine Zidane.
A plausible acquisition?
Despite failing to dislodge Pepe and Ramos on a permanent basis Varane still started 23 games for Madrid last season and is probably happy enough in Spain for Florentino Perez to play a solid bargaining chip.
Varane is likely to cost United in excess of £30 million but for their money the Red Devils would be getting a quick, all-round central defender who is good in the air, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe won more headers in the Real Madrid squad than his 50 last season, as well as on the ground; of Madrid’s defenders only Ramos posted a better pass completion rate than Varane’s 88.2%.
He is also a committed, resilient defender, making more clearances than anybody else in Madrid’s squad with 123 and making 20 blocks, a figure nobody could better.
Zidane however, embarking on his first full campaign in charge of Madrid, knows how reckless it would be for the club to lose Varane and has attempted to persuade the Frenchman of the esteem to which he is held at the Bernabeu by handing him the white number 5 shirt made famous by Zidane.
It’s now or possibly never for Mourinho
Varane will be entrusted to follow in the footsteps of his idol by becoming a club legend, surely ending any speculation linking him with a move to the red half of Manchester.
Improving Bailly may be the closest Mourinho gets to managing Varane again for the foreseeable future, but he may regret not rigorously pursuing the chance to sign him again, no matter how small an opportunity it was.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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