United have conducted some wonderful sieges on opponents’ goals over the years. For some reason the one that I remember most vividly came in the 2007/8 season, four games from its climax. United topped the table and travelled to Blackburn Rovers searching for points that would push them towards the title once more. Things didn’t, however, go to plan and Roque Santa Cruz put the hosts ahead in the first half. United pressed and probed but couldn’t find a way past Brad Friedel, a repeat offender when it came to God-like performances against the Reds. With the game entering its final stages, Fergie’s team cranked up the pressure. Chance after chance came and went and it looked increasingly like it wasn’t United’s day, but in the 89th minute a corner was flicked on and Carlos Tevez headed home. Bedlam in the away end. Classic United.
The reason I take this trip down memory lane is because those relentless barrages have, in recent years, become as rare as my teenage self making physical contact with a girl. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a match in Sir Alex’s final seasons involving a truly relentless demonstration of power late in the game, certainly not to the extent that was so common in United’s strongest teams in the last twenty-five years. As the quality of the players available to the manager dropped, so did their ability to remorselessly turn the screw. Well duh. In the great manager’s final campaign there were some great comebacks, not least in 3-2 wins at Southampton and Villa, but neither were achieved through an absolutely relentless bombardment. For those we have to travel back seven or eight years, to United’s last great team.
Post-Fergie all of the characteristics of our finest teams have been slowly purged, a period we’ll be able to laugh about one day. Maybe. Moyes’ incompetence led to key areas where renewal was desperately needed being neglected, whilst his slapstick team saw the fear factor that every opponent used to feel when facing United drain away. Newcastle won at Old Trafford ffs, on a day when The Scot didn’t substitute a labouring Robin Van Persie because he thought the fans would be cross. Under Louis Van Gaal the team totally lost its identity and became a conservative muddle, lacking in top-class talent and too scared to pass forwards or press for a late goal. All drive was lost, a soulless bunch playing soulless football at the behest of a man incapable of inspiring them when the chips were down. Home or away, games would simply drift to their natural conclusion, and if that be 0-0 then so be it. We live to fight another day. In fifth. W*nker. Opponent’s knew that United would not commit men forward on the break and were thus emboldened enough to have a real go. Too often it was a tactic that worked. On too many occasions the Dutchman’s side managed only one or two shots on target in a game. It was a wretched return and a wretched time to be a United fan.
Thank The Lord and any other omnipotent, all-powerful being of dubious existence then that he and his cowardly football is gone. Instead we have Jose and his cheeky grin, and what we expected is what we have got. He came in in the summer and made the decisions we all knew needed making, jettisoning Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett from a cannon into the North Sea, getting actual money for Donald Love, making Ed Woodward a highly competent Executive Vice President, attracting and signing four wonderful players and starting to build a team which looks more and more like United of old by the day. It is too soon to get carried away, but there are enough signs so far to say that we may be on the verge of something special. The football is direct and purposeful and the likes of Zlatan and Pogba have given the side their fear-factor back, the magnificent demigods that they are. Oh to be as magnificent as them. Eric Bailly has taken only four games to introduce himself as perhaps the best centre back in the Premier League (and also the most likely to maim) and the limited amount we’ve seen from Mkhitaryan suggests he is a wonderful player. The comfortable wins over Bournemouth and Southampton were a blast from the past for the fans, but nothing screamed ‘United’ like Saturday evening’s win at Hull City.
Going into the game both sides had 100% records, but with only fourteen senior players it was clear that Hull had over-performed. Nevertheless, they worked incredibly hard in the first seventy minutes and could have nicked a goal themselves. Mourinho’s team had made and squandered a few good chances, but with the game drifting towards its conclusion something unusual happened: United started to turn the screw. Hull, exhausted and clearly intimidated sunk back into their own area. On came Marcus Rashford and Mkhitaryan and both drove at the heart of the home side’s defence. Chances started raining down on goal from every angle, but all were saved or went wide. It looked like it simply wasn’t United’s day as 28 shots, 9 on target, brought no reward. 28 shots. In one game. What a time to be alive. LVG’s side took several months to achieve that tally. Then, in the 92nd minute, the previously ineffectual Wayne Rooney surged past the Hull right back, paused and then crossed low for Marcus Rashford to toe home. Carnage. Classic old skool United. A United we have so missed on the Post-Fergie era.
Mourinho’s team have made a promising start to the season, but it is the style of the performances that have been so pleasing. United have become a relentless, efficient machine again, one which will intimidate opponents and remind them that avoiding defeat will be an achievement. Even if some of its parts are not working well, as Zlatan, Martial, Rooney, Pogba and Mata epitomised on Saturday, the team still finds a way to win. In defence Shaw, Valencia, Blind and Bailly have formed a reliable back four, leaving the forward players to go out and win games. Bailly won United’s man of the match award, voted for the by the fans, for the third match out of four, a remarkable introduction to English football for a man who three months ago most supporters did not know existed. His magnificent back-sliding, somersaulting, Rio-impersonating celebration after the goal was worth the £30m on its own. Not bad for a boy from a place called Bingerville. I wish I was from Bingerville.
The exciting thing is that there is clearly much more to come. Opponent’s will get tougher (it has been a relatively soft start to the season), but confidence is growing and the players will take time to fully master their new system. However, for Mourinho there have been no ‘three month assimilation period’ b*llshit. Adaptation is clearly well underway. Competition for places is fierce and the whole squad will get their chance to shine as matches come thick and fast in September and beyond. On Friday United were drawn in what should prove to be a very stabby Europa League group with Fenerbahce, Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk and Mourinho will rotate his options extensively. He may then be able to find answers to nagging questions about some of the players I have named. Mata seems to be a poor fit on the right, whilst Martial is scratching for form. Behind Zlatan, Rooney still divides opinion. What is more important, a functioning number ten or a dysfunctional one who chips in regularly with goals and assists? We saw enough of Mkhitaryan on Saturday to suggests that the choice between them is not a simple one. The Armenian glided over the turf with the ball glued to his feet, showing a surprising turn of pace. His introduction saw Rooney shifted out to the left, from where he created the decisive goal. Marcus Rashford gave United another dimension after his introduction and it is pertinent to ask how long Mourinho can exclude him from his best eleven for big games. The teenager has pace, power, an eye for goal and exquisite technique. Some in the media questioned the Portuguese for being the cause of the player’s demotion to England under-21s, but his response on Sunday was emphatic. “Here’s your boy Sam, look what you’re going to be missing.” It is notable that Daniel Sturridge still made the squad despite sporadic, largely ineffectual appearances, as did Chris Smalling, yet to start for United this season.
It is always good to go into an international break after a win, leaving fans dreaming of the possibilities in the Manchester derby. It is even better entering that fortnight break from club football having witnessed the return of a friend you’ve not seen for years. Fans, meet Mourinho’s United, dominant, relentless winners. As dysfunctional as it was at times, and taking into account that there is much work still to be done and many difficult decisions about personnel to be made, Sunday saw the return of everything that United have lacked in recent times. In need of a goal the team relentlessly cranked up the pressure, driving its opponent further and further back, bombarding their goal and making that glorious breakthrough right at the death. The siege is back and so are United. Huzzah.