When the final whistle went at Goodison Park two weeks ago frustration levels hit PEAK FURY. Here was another away performance where Manchester United had struggled to create chances and had been undone by their own caution in the last twenty minutes and a moment of pure stupidity from Marouane Fellaini.
If United were going to start looking up in the Premier League rather than down then things would have to change. A fortnight later and change they have and whilst there are still areas of concern it would be reasonable to say that it finally looks as if a corner has been turned. The home win over Spurs was an enormous confidence booster, but it is the change in attitude and approach to the two away games of the last week which demonstrates best the areas of improvement.
United’s problems this season have often been glaringly obvious, but Jose Mourinho has struggled for answers. The team don’t score enough in the Premier League and Zlatan’s form in October and November was a huge cause for concern. With a misfiring striker and few others contributing goals it was hard to see where the upturn would come from. At Swansea, however, Ibrahimovic hit a scoring streak and has not looked back since. He is at last shouldering the team’s goalscoring, for which he was signed. He won’t be able to do it forever, but for now we should sit back and admire the quite astonishing contribution of a 35 year old. Wayne Rooney is 31 and has lost half of the feeling in his legs. Makes you think….
United have also struggled to impose themselves on games away from home, so imagine our joy as they dominated the first half at Palace. Sure, Marcos Rojo should have been sent off for a two-footed lunge on Wilfried Zaha and Paul Pogba’s goal was handball and offside, but United thoroughly deserved the benefits of a partially sighted referee. The home side were pinned back and it would have been extremely frustrating had Mourinho’s team not reached the break ahead. Cometh the hour, cometh the Pog. Then, after half time came the annoying bit, because as we’ve learned the hard way over the last four years, there’s almost always an annoying bit. Within minutes of the second half kicking off it became apparent that the physio had mixed up the Jaffa Cakes and the veterinary grade ketamine again and the entire team were struggling to stay semi-conscious. Schoolboy error. Palace eventually levelled, through a really nice goal, the b*stards. Cue the rage. United suddenly lifted the tempo again, which was nice, although one might wonder why they had to leave it until after the home side had scored. We did, at least, learn something about the half-life of ketamine, I guess. Every cloud. Still, we need not have worried, although worry we most certainly did. Particularly after the referee missed Joe Ledley PUNCHING the ball clear in the area and then ruled out an onside goal for offside. ‘Levelling it up’ toss pot. Shortly before full time, however, the absurdly outstanding Pogba spun and played a perfectly weighted pass for Ibrahimovic to fire across Wayne Hennesey and into the far corner. Bedlam. Glorious bedlam. Dance a jig at that Pards. Palace are rubbish, but still, if ever three points were desperately needed it was then.
Post match I made the mistake of praising Paul Pogba on social media, opining that he is the best midfielder in the Premier League. Innocuous tweet I thought. But no. It turns out that the word ‘Pogba’ sends fans of opposition clubs into a rage and that they band together like something from The Walking Dead and descend upon their prey shouting “LALLANA” or nasty names. FOR OVER TWENTY FOUR HOURS. Do these people not sleep? What is it about the fabulously talented Frenchman who could well be the central piece in United’s revival that threatens you so? Lallana. Roflcopter. I had a young City supporting journalism student telling me that my opinion about Pogba was factually incorrect and that for me to hold such a belief left him baffled as to how anyone would want me to write for them. The cheeky tyke. There’ll be some fun in a few years time at the Stockport Echo when a work colleague writes something he doesn’t agree with. Having said that, he won’t be getting that far if he doesn’t know the difference between opinion and fact. I know he and thousands of others will be reading this since it contains the word ‘Pogba’ and is thus like sh*t to flies. *Waves.
Anyway, onwards and upwards. Saturday marked the trip to West Brom. The Baggies have had a wonderful season and were bang in form. This should have been a far bigger test than Alan Pardew’s comical Eagles. And yet it wasn’t. How curious. United scored a wonderful opener after only five minutes, Jesse Lingard’s insane volleyed cross at full speed fell perfectly for Zlatan (after a snidey tug on Dawson’s shirt – embrace the snide) to head home. Ibra ran to celebrate with Lingard. Jesse is a slight little thing and for a moment thought he was about to be karate kicked into a million pieces. But he wasn’t. His Swedish teammate just wanted a hug. Aaaaahhhhhh. Early goal away from home? Early? What is this and what do we do now? The answer is simple: Cruise through the game, get a second (Ibra again, the big, sexy love god) shortly after half time and do a thoroughly professional job (*faints). ‘Routine win’, said someone on social media. No idea what that is, but let’s do it again. There was no knocking off, no defensive blunder, no Rojo two-footed incident, no stress, no doubt. Dare I say that the performance was classic Mourinho. Good God, does he have his mojo back? He’s made Marcos Rojo into an excellent centre back for goodness sakes.
The gap to the top four is suddenly only four points, which is particularly exciting as the next few games (and, indeed, most of United’s fixtures until late February) look rather soft. If we don’t beat Sunderland and Middlesborough at home after giving us hope once more then football can get in the sea. Perhaps Henrikh Mkhitaryan will have returned by then, which he needs to as United are still desperately reliant on Ibrahimovic’s goals. After his 11, the next highest goalscorer at the club has 3 in the Premier League. That won’t do. Pull your fingers out attacking midfield types. As we’ve seen in this last two weeks, things can change around very quickly in football. Ask Arsenal fans.
The only negative news to emerge from this last week is that Eric Bailly injured himself again at Palace, although Mourinho said that it was not the same knee that kept him out for over a month. It is a sign of the times that this news is not considered to be as devastating as it felt when he hobbled off at Stamford Bridge. Remarkably his manager could not justify breaking up the Rojo/Jones central defensive Axis of Joy at Selhurst Park and the Ivorian started at right back. It’s a sign of his ability on and off the ball that Bailly looked like a natural there too, even throwing in some stepovers for lolz. What a guy. Can you imagine Phil Jones trying stepovers? Ambulance for Beaker. On Rojo, Castles now claims that Mourinho has gone full reverse and is imploring the Argentine to reject big money offers from China and stay at United this January. I find myself hoping the same, which feels like an anathema to my soul. There have been further links to centre back signings in the winter transfer window, most notably Benfica’s Swedish defender Victor Lindelöf, but it now feels as if Chris Smalling is the man most at risk of being sold to Stoke. Or Everton. Maybe even West Brom, which is becoming something of a United has-been retirement home. Except that Jonny Evans is actually doing very well indeed there and if we still had him it may not be necessary to blow £40m on another defender next month. Hindsight eh?
We now have to wait a week for United to face Moyseh’s Sunderland, by which time Santa will have been and delivered lots of pressies to children, including the bike for my eldest daughter which I spent FOUR HOURS building. And I’ll get no thanks. That will go to the elusive old man in red and white. At least he supports the Red Devils, I guess. So have a Happy Christmas one and all and let’s be grateful that United delivered their presents early, because this time last year LVG’s mob were breaking into houses and stealing the festive spirit, the soul-sucking b*stards. A year later it finally looks like Mourinho is getting it right. Ibra is scoring and United are dominating games away from home. Now, if he can get some other chaps in red to start chipping in with goals over the holiday period we might even have a Happy New Year as well. (*faints again)