Note: All images used in this article are credited to Man United FB.
There are still certain kinks to be worked out, but United put together a generally positive performance with moments of promise and inspiration that will be vital for success at home, and on the road this year.
United are still a functional team to some extent – Phil Jones will have to prove himself all over again, alongside Eric Bailly this time. Daley Blind is a useful squad player, but United need a fit Luke Shaw to add extra pace width into the team. Romelu Lukaku’s double, along with goals from Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba were promising signs, because all are players that could improve under Mourinho.
What was especially promising to see after the Moyes-Van Gaal years, was the adventure to United’s play. José Mourinho may be more willing to let his attacking players pour forward, but only now with a fully fit Nemanja Matic as a security blanket. The big Serbian’s is a powerful presence in the middle of the park, and his ability to control and recirculate the ball will be missed at Stamford Bridge. An added bonus is his range of passing, which will offer United more of an edge from deep midfield, allowing Pogba to step further forward into areas where the latter can do real damage.
Mourinho may want four players, but Matic may be key for United because he allows them to control games much better. He brings a sense of calmness in front of the back four, thereby releasing the front four in attack. Ideally, United will score firsr, as they did against West Ham. By which time, the ‘classic’ Mourinho move is to make a defensive substitution to see out the game post-70th minutes.
It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Juan Mata would come off for Maraoune Fellaini. That said, maybe this is what is needed for a title tilt, tactical substitutions over a 38 game schedule, not withstanding fatigue or injury in the league or Europe.
Despite their differences at Chelsea, the present Lukaku fits the Mourinho template. Lukaku’s pace as a No. 9 offers United a different dimension in attack to the still injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Lukaku has the speed to run the wide channels, allowing the rest of United’s fleet-footed forwards to break past an opposition’s defensive line far quicker. Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as the jet-heeled wide men, were able to put in strong performances, even if both will hope to be more decisive in front of goal.
United were able to dominate possession, as per last season, but their most promising moments came from hitting West Ham on the counter. Maybe this is not entirely surprising given Mourinho’s track record, where his teams have always been able to soak up pressure and spring forwards in a matter of decisive moments.
Having seen Lukaku hit West Ham with a double, the Hammers could no longer pack men behind the ball for a result. Space opened up for Martial and Pogba were able to stroll past the West Ham defence to put a clinical gloss on the scoreline.
Sterner tests await, but United should come much closer than last year. Mourinho will surely set his sights on the title, with Champions League success a lottery (form, injuries and team momentum).
After all, United had their share of good fortune in winning the Europa League and the League Cup last season. The Portuguese tactician may be known as a cup specialist, but there is some security in having 38 games to decide one’s domestic fate. Even if United were to contrive to lose twice against City this year, it would not matter if they manage to win the title.
Given Mourinho’s track record in his second seasons at Inter, Real Madrid and Chelsea, there is real optimism that United can improve upon last year. Bring on Second Season Mourinho, if history is anything to go by.