In the last two years Manchester United fans have got rather used to new signings being eulogised by foreign writers who had watched them perform in their own leagues. Memphis Depay was supposed to set the Premier League alight, Matteo Darmian would be a revelation at right back, Falcao a deadly assassin and Ander Herrera an outstanding all-round box-to-box midfielder. More often than not Louis Van Gaal’s signings ended up being disappointments, with the notable exceptions of Anthony Martial, the versatile Daley Blind and Luke Shaw. Only Martial has exceeded expectations.
Eric Bailly was an interesting acquisition for United this summer, a centre back with less than fifty senior appearances to his name at Espanol and Villarreal, and seasoned La Liga writers were unanimous in stating that this was a player of rare potential. The consensus was that the Ivorian combined pace, strength and athleticism with a fine reading of the game and a robust tackle. On the downside he was still a raw talent, at times over-enthusiastic, diving into unnecessary tackles and thus exposing his defence and picking up too many cards. However, decision making can be improved, whilst physical and technical attributes are God-given. A promising pre-season, at least compared to his fellow centre-backs, gave United fans reason to believe that there might be talent there, but Leicester City in the Community Shield would be the first real test in a match with meaning.
Given the failures of the past two or three years, imagine the supporters’ surprise when the player that had been advertised walked away with the man of the match award at Wembley, as United beat the Premier League champions 2-1. Strong and quick, with good anticipation and a prodigious leap, Bailly was a revelation against one of the Premier League’s quickest forward lines. The only downside was, you’ve guessed it, over-exuberance in the tackle, leading to a yellow card and a number of unnecessary free kicks conceded in dangerous positions. However, the player’s ability and passing range on the ball was wonderful to see after a long period of watching Chris Smalling panicking in possession. With the Ivorian partnering Daley Blind in defence it has been some time since United have had centre backs so comfortable on the ball. For the fans it was a delight and perhaps a surprise to see a promising player arrive and perform exactly as advertised and Jose Mourinho appears to have identified a young player with a rare talent who should improve an erratic defence and, if those imperfections are ironed out, could become a fixture in the United back line for many years. For Bailly it is early days and, as Matteo Darmian demonstrated, honeymoon period’s can quickly come to an end, but we’ve seen enough by now to know that there is talent there to be harnessed. For United, Bailly was the biggest plus point from Wembley.
Few of his teammates excelled, although Daley Blind was steady at centre back and Jesse Lingard was lively and dangerous, scoring a terrific solo goal, aided by some comical Leicester defending. United’s winner came from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had otherwise had a quiet game, starved of service and clearly not as sharp as he would like. But when his moment came, almost at the death, the headed finish was perfection and demonstrated exactly what he brings and what United have been missing. He is a complete centre-forward, technically excellent and physically imposing, as strong in the air as he is on the ground. He provides a focal point that the team have lacked, Van Gaal preferring to try to work the ball into the box rather than play with variation and encourage crosses. The change to a more direct approach appears to be suiting Antonio Valencia down to the ground and it was his cross which Ibrahimovic converted, his fourth assist of pre-season, a remarkable tally given that he had become a derided figure for his unwillingness to take on his man or provide accurate crosses. He more than anyone appears to be benefitting from Mourinho’s arrival and perhaps he has more to offer than most fans believed. Mourinho post-match had another dig at his predecessor by pointing out that previously the Ecuadorian would have checked back and passed to a teammate. He was absolutely right.
Other than Bailly, Zlatan and Valencia there were few standout players in a patchy and uninspiring team performance. Carrick and Fellaini were ponderous and slow in midfield, the latter’s under hit back-pass setting up Leicester’s equaliser, while Anthony Martial looks to be some way off peak fitness. Wayne Rooney, playing in the key number ten role, was absolutely shocking once again and appears to be struggling to get even the basics right. With a wretched first touch, he repeatedly surrendered possession, much to the frustration of teammates and fans alike. Mourinho has a huge decision to make for he cannot continue to persist with his captain in this form in the side indefinitely. Mourinho mouthpiece Duncan Castles took aim at Rooney on social media, a sign that usually means that his Dear Leader is setting the player up for a fall. The Portuguese can ultimately say, “I gave him a chance, started him, but he was dreadful. What can I do?” With Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench, alongside another option in Rooney’s position in Juan Mata, the manager has plenty of alternatives. The decision to leave out the former was curious, although Lingard justified his inclusion, whilst the latter was initially baffled to be subbed as a sub as Leicester bombarded United with high balls in injury time.
After the game, Mourinho finally opened up about the impending signing of Paul Pogba for about £89m (plus a portion of Raiola’s cut), admitting that the player was set for a medical on Monday. The Portuguese must be delighted, having signed all four of his top targets, including the high-class Frenchman, a deal which will potentially launch United from a work in progress to potential title winners. The team has needed a new spine for years and Fergie, Moyes and Van Gaal all failed to address the need for strength and quality in central areas. With Bailly still a work in progress, it looks as if Mourinho may have achieved that feat in two months. Pogba will add dynamism, technical quality, creativity and a goal threat from midfield, all qualities United have desperately lacked in recent times. There is much to be excited about.
However, Sunday’s performance demonstrated that there are still plenty of issues that need addressing at United, both in terms of quality on the pitch and tactically. As Mourinho repeated himself both pre and post-match, it will take time to reprogram the brains of his players after two years of Van a Gaal indoctrination, but the shift in mentality on the pitch is clear, even if the execution is still lacking. The centre backs now look to pass forward as their first instinct, only going sideways if no option is available, whilst attacking players are more direct and willing to run with the ball and get it into the box. Both United goals came from passages of play which would have been frowned upon by the Dutchman. The midfield remains a work-in-progress, even after the purchase of Pogba. Carrick and Fellaini were both poor at Wembley, whilst neither Herrera nor Schneiderlin have yet convinced. The balance of the side remains a problem and the Rooney issue could yet undermine the season if Mourinho is unwilling to act should the dire performances continue. Isolated inadequate contributions in wide areas can be overcome but number 10 is a key position in the Portuguese’s system and getting it right will be essential. Too many attacks broke down when Rooney got the ball and there was a lack of fluidity in attacking areas as a result. To that end both Zlatan and Martial will also have to up their games, but the former is already scoring, whilst we know that the latter has prodigious talent. Rooney, however, has been in gradual decline for at least two and a half years and a sudden revival would be surprising. There will be glimpses of what he once was, a genuinely world class footballer and leader on the pitch, but they have become few and far between. It may take Mourinho some time to get the balance and mentality of his team right and to build a more complete squad. Castles has repeatedly suggested that an experienced centre back would be signed if unwanted players could be offloaded, and United have given themselves three weeks to achieve those goals. Credit must go to the often hapless Ed Woodward, who has had an exceptional summer so far in the transfer market. Perhaps the penny has at last dropped, whilst having such a single-minded and focused manager for whom he must have been desperate to deliver, a coach able to attract the very best, will have been of great benefit to him.
There remains much work to do, but United are swiftly heading in the right direction. These are interesting times.