The job of any new manager is usually two-fold: to improve the squad with new signings and to make the current ones better. Jose Mourinho’s brief was no different, except that he was also charged with introducing a more attacking system. On the latter point he could hardly fail given that Louis Van a Gaal had created the most conservative, boring team in Manchester United’s modern history. But still, taking players used to passing aimlessly between themselves for 90 minutes and making them pass forward, run with the ball and shoot and stuff would be no easy task. As Mourinho himself suggested, the Dutchman had scorched mindless possession into their souls and it would take some time to purge minds of that awful affliction. The ability to sign new players would be of benefit in this regard, because the Van Gaal old boys would surely get jealous of the interlopers scoring and dribbling and other actions previously considered frivolous and bordering on illegal.
We are only two games into the fledgling tenure of Mourinho, and I’m probably being self-indulgent including the Community Shield just because we won, but so far the signs are extremely encouraging on all counts. The Portuguese has signed four terrific players, two of whom started at Bournemouth on Sunday. With Zlatan what we expected is what we have got, a sublime footballer and a huge physical presence. More than anything he was signed to score goals and that is now two in two, the most recent a brilliant angled 25 yard strike. Of the players on the pitch perhaps only he and a Wayne Rooney of olde could have scored that goal or, indeed, would have even taken the shot on. Under Van Gaal the player would by now have been savaged in the post-match debrief and dispatched to the dungeons for a month or so. Instead, we are all free to celebrate his genius and pray that his renaissance continues.
If Zlatan has impressed then Eric Bailly, almost unknown to United fans when signed from Villarreal, has blown our little cotton socks off. Suddenly those previously claiming that Chris Smalling is a top class defender have been given a large dose of reality. No darlings, that’s what defensive excellence looks like. The Ivorian combines pace and physicality with a spring like Zebedee, anticipation and a willingness to rearrange an opponent’s limbs if they happen to be anywhere near the ball, a quality which Nemanja Vidic taught us to appreciate. If the Serb will, ‘f*cking murder ya’, Bailly will leave you in traction for a few months. There are still obviously raw elements to his game, the most glaring of which is impetuosity and the over-exuberance of youth and inexperience, but Mourinho knows a fine defender and he’s most certainly bought one here. Whilst Bailly’s passing is not on the level of Daley Blind’s, his ability to play out of the back puts Smalling’s to shame. Good luck getting your place back Chris.
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba yet to fully contribute, the manager appears to have got the ‘sign better players’, bit nailed.
So to making existing players better, a tough task but possible given that Van Gaal had done his best to make every last one of them significantly f*cking worse. Thanks Louis. So far so good on that score too. Antonio Valencia looks like a new man at right back, confident, direct and willing to attack his man and cross rather than pass tamely backwards. Against Bournemouth there were times when he and Luke Shaw were almost playing as wingers when United had the ball. If Pep Guardiola had done that there would be semen across the screens of electrical devices worldwide. Daley Blind’s defending appears to have improved further, while Juan Mata, restored after an injury to Jesse Lingard, was particularly influential in a floating attacking midfield role. His goal came from unusual tenacity in closing down the Bournemouth defender and profiting from his mistake. It was a surprise that he had started over Mkhitaryan, but his manager’s decision was vindicated.
Perhaps the area of greatest improvement is the midfield. There was dismay when Marouane Fellaini was selected and yet the Belgian produced a master-class in ball winning and simple, effective passing. Who knew? Alongside him Ander Herrera, so often disappointing, played a disciplined role, combining tenacity with creativity, the player we thought we were signing from Bilbao two years ago.
The biggest question mark remains over what to do with Wayne Rooney. At Bournemouth there were some good elements to his game, but the normal weaknesses of his touch and ability to find his man were present. The problem with Rooney is that even if he is having a stinker he can pop up with a goal and so the issue for any manager is whether that goal is more important than his deficiencies. On Sunday it probably was, his excellently placed header from Martial’s miss-hit shot giving United some breathing space at 2-0. Still, it is unlikely that the debate about his inclusion will go away any time soon and nor should it.
Of those players on the pitch only Anthony Martial struggled. On Sunday morning a video of his former partner and mother of his child appeared on the Sun on Sunday website in which she detailed his infidelity. The player later responded in rather puerile fashion on Twitter. One wonders whether it is affecting his form, or if he is just adjusting to his manager’s demands, but it serves no one to play out a bitter separation in the public domain, particularly where there is a child involved.
With most aspects of United’s game improved and with better players on board it was no surprise to see more goals. It took many of us some time to adjust to a scenario in which the team were winning away from home with ease. In two years under Van Gaal the team only scored three times away from home on four occasions and only once held a 3-0 lead, at Everton last season. Most often an away goal would see the team sit back and try to play out the game, inviting pressure. Here, United went for the jugular, exploiting Bournemouth’s need to push forward in search of the equaliser. This always looked like a tricky start to the season, even if the hosts were far weaker on paper. The wretched 2-1 defeat last year was at the forefront of the fans’ minds, but they need not have worried. Despite the late concession, this was a victory built on fine defending, particularly by Bailly and Blind. Bournemouth’s slick football asked plenty of questions of the back four, but they largely held firm. With that solid base from which to attack and with the midfield providing bite and creativity the conditions were right for the forwards to do their jobs. It was not a classic performance and there is clearly still much work to be done, but the signs are increasingly positive. A Van Gaal team would not have been 3-0 ahead when the home side eventually scored and, even if it were, it would most likely have sh*t itself at that concession. There was no such negative response here.
Mourinho has recruited well and is getting better performances out of players we were unsure would be capable of them. Whilst much of the play is more functional than attractive, a strong defensive unit and better attacking options mean that United fans will certainly see more goals this season and the team will surely win more games. There are tougher challenges to come, but at this very early stage the signs are that Mourinho has made good progress in undoing the damage to the psyches inflicted by Louis Van Gaal and is meeting all of the demands put upon him. This is still a work in progress and we should not get too carried away by a victory against a poor Bournemouth side, but at United it is a case of so far so good for Mourinho. Skillz Jose.