If ever a game demonstrated the yawning chasm between the football played by Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United and Mourinho’s incarnation and the difference in quality and mindset that now exists it was the home Premier League game against Middlesborough.
Apart from the attacking intent on Saturday, there was a first half goal at Old Trafford for a start. I’m still not used to those. Of course, it didn’t count, because referee Lee Mason ruled out Ibrahimovic’s finish after Anthony Martial’s fine run and cross because the former kicked the ball and Victor Valdes, slow to react, ran into the Swede at a point when he had both of his feet back on terra firma and the ball was already in the the net. Foul by Zlatan, obviously. Another triumph for officiating in possibly the worst season of refereeing performances in the top flight I’ve ever seen.
And although United huffed and puffed, created chance after chance, the ball simply wouldn’t go in. When Chris Smalling, starting his first game in sometime, fell asleep and allowed Negredo to play in Grant Leadbitter with just over twenty minutes to go, the sight of the ball nestling in the back of De Gea’s net it felt like a familiar hammer blow. This was September to November all over again. Thanks Chris. And it continued to feel that way as Mourinho’s team battered at the door without reward.
But the Portuguese is a different animal to Van Gaal, even if it’s taken a while to see his talents effectively combine. On came Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors. A year ago the Dutch bore would have subbed his full backs and thrown Fellaini up front. With six minutes to go a long, expertly directed raking forward ball to Ibrahimovic led to the towering centre forward heading down for Anthony Martial to burst into the area and powerfully score past the helpless keeper. It was route one with class. Van Gaal would have disappeared the ‘culprits’ for a month. His team would also have played out the remainder of the game as if they were ahead, keeping the ball and risking nothing. F*ck that. United went balls to the wall and for the first time in a very long while a winner felt inevitable. So it was no surprise when substitute Mata beat his man and crossed for Paul Pogba to expertly head home frankreich cialis. Bedlam. The last time United turned around a one goal defecit late on was the 3-2 win at Southampton in Fergie’s last season. The last time they did so after the 85th minute in the Premier League was Bruce’s late double against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. 1993! I remember it like it was yesterday, because I’m old.
The fact that Pogba scored the winner was also important when making distinctions between the two United incarnations. Van Gaal’s team was one of automatons, with Anthony Martial the only player of exceptional talent capable of producing match-winning moments. Mourinho has brought in a raft of such players, none more brilliant than Pogba and his Go-Go-Gadget limbs (look it up kids). The tiresome narrative that he was vastly over-priced and overrated now comes only from jealous rival fans and those with an axe to grind against the riches of the modern game. The Frenchman is destroying games at present, demonstrating a range of talents that make him the most complete midfielder United have possessed since Roy Keane. It is a personal hunch that one day the £90m+ fee reported to have been paid for his registration will be considered to have been a snip. Steven Gerrard of all people had it right on BT Sport at the weekend:
“I think coming with that big price tag early on has weighed him down a bit and Manchester United weren’t in the rhythm but I think now they’ve found his best position. I think Carrick complements him so well and now we’re seeing the Paul Pogba that we all expected to see and he’s only going to get better and better. He’s young, he’s leggy, he’s got all the tools in the bag and there’s no doubt about it he’s one of the best midfielders now and he’s going to get better which is a scary thought being a Liverpool fan!”
Adding Pogba, a fully functioning Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has now given United a raft of big-game players who come up trumps when it really counts. If Mourinho can finally get a consistent tune out of Anthony Martial, who was sensational against Middlesborough, then there are few more vibrant, high-quality attacks in world football.
Indeed, after the West Ham game on Monday evening one journalist opined that United may have the best array of attacking talent in the Premier League. After two years of LVG’s toothless attack my initial reaction was to scoff, but when we consider that we can add the exciting Marcus Rashford and dependable Juan Mata to the four mentioned then it is clear that Mourinho has an array of dangerous options.
Which brings us neatly on to Monday’s game at the Olympic Stadium. It felt odd writing that location and it was even odder watching United play West Ham away from home in an atmosphere that largely sounded like incessant chatter. Upton Park was such a difficult place to visit because of the proximity of a notoriously rowdy crowd to the pitch and a raucous dislike of our good selves. Sat miles from the action the home fans had to make do with thumping each other (now standard) and booing referee Mike Dean (completely fair). It would be churlish of me not to admit that United were gifted this game. Feghouli’s challenge on Jones appeared late but not malicious, even though Jones rolled away as if he’d been speared through the abdomen by Maximus. But out popped the red card and this was once again the Dean Show. Mourinho appeared furious at his team’s sloppy, weary response in a first half notable only for the most remarkable double miss you’ll ever see. Quite how Antonio Valencia allowed Randolph to make a save with the open net yawning is difficult to comprehend, but not as hard to fathom as Jesse Lingard scuffing the rebound onto the post when faced with an open net from four yards. D’uh. It wasn’t Lingard’s day and he was again hooked early after struggling on the left wing. Discussion of his talents often gets heated as Reds desperate to defend a youth teamer jump to his aid, but the player is 24, with no outstanding attribute and can only be at Old Trafford as a squad padder. Of course, every club needs them, but given a choice they shouldn’t be starting matches such as these, especially out of position.
Mourinho once again offended the instincts of Louis Van Gaal by introducing Juan Mata for a defender, Matteo Darmian, at half time, moving Rojo to left back and Carrick to centre back. For a time United continued to toil and were indebted to De Gea for saving from Antonio and to Antonio for heading wide from six yards. Mourinho threw on Rashford and the teenager changed the game. It was he who surged down the left, dummied and pulled the ball back for Mata to expertly side-foot home. A fun Squawka-tweeted fact: Only David Silva has been involved in more goals from midfield in the last six seasons than Mata. Huzzah. The manager, ever the pragmatist, returned his compliment of natural defenders to four, but it was not necessary. As the home side tired Pogba and Herrera had chances to add to the lead. Eventually Zlatan did just that, from a horrendously offside position, another masterclass from a Premier League refereeing team, and West Ham’s transition to martyrdom was complete. United have scored three ‘offside’ goals in a month and yet it still doesn’t feel sufficient to offset the catastrophic calls that have gone against us this season.
A sixth win in succession in the Premier League and a seventh in all competitions. There have been many changes from the United version from September to November in recent weeks, most notably the side’s finishing and game management, but perhaps the most important evolution has been that from mental fragility to total belief on the pitch. Nobody is looking to others to make something happen, but all are also safe in the knowledge that they have teammates who can create and score goals and win games. That has been achieved by the manager stumbling upon the perfect midfield and defensive balance and because Mourinho is at last demonstrating his famed ability to change games with his substitutions. He is also becoming increasingly brave with his changes, attacking games in a manner which now demonstrates that the winning run has left him less afraid to lose. When you’ve won twice in ten games, caution is natural. When you are winning every week it becomes less important.
Remarkably United have won six in a row and remain sixth, the position they held when that run started. But a glance above shows that those above them should now be worried. Liverpool and City both dropped points over New Year and the latter now sit only three above the Reds. Guardiola does not look a happy camper at present. A win in two weeks at home to the Scousers would move United to within two points of Klopp’s team. With the FA Cup and League Cup games to be played in January it will be another busy but increasingly exciting month, while this transfer window is likely to see the departures of both Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. Replacements appear unlikely, meaning we’ll have to suffer the sight of Marouane Fellaini in midfield from time to time. Michael Carrick was hugely missed against Middlesborough. The team has been fun (but frustrating) to watch for a while, but at last the arrogance and ruthlessness of Fergie’s sides has returned. No team will relish coming to Old Trafford and opposition fans are finally getting agitated once again. Football is a strange game, but 2017 looks like it could well be a far better year for United than the three and a half that came before it. Happy New Year!