Prior to last Friday’s game United’s last two home matches against Southampton, under Louis Van Gaal, had resulted in 1-0 defeats. In both United were toothless, kept at arm’s length by the visitors and hit with a sucker-punch. In truth the Dutchman’s team weren’t hard to keep at arm’s length as they didn’t like getting too close to the opposition’s goal anyway. Occasionally they’d accidentally pass the ball forward and ‘THWACK’, ‘KAPOW’, ‘THUD’. Nose all over face. That’s what Southampton did twice and it was very annoying indeed, or as annoying as it can be when you neither trust your side to score a goal at home or not to concede. For two years United waded through treacle, did not dare to commit, to beat a man or pass the ball long or early. It was coward’s football and no-one likes a coward, except for the man having to fight the coward.
But now things are different, my friends. We knew it last weekend as United dribbled and countered with purpose and speed, resulting in three goals away from home, a feat achieved only four times under Van Gaal. We marvelled at the exceptional defence of Shaw, Bailly, Blind and Valencia, all achieved without sacrificing attacking intent, and the team’s attacking thrust, spearheaded by the magnificent demigod, Zlatan. He’s wonderful at football, if you hadn’t noticed. And on Friday we saw again how the winds of change, Mou-niño, are upon us. In a team of giants, supplemented by the mighty beanpole that is Paul Pogba, Southampton came and played with intent, but, without ever looking entirely fluent, United just powered through them. After Zlatan’s magnificent towering header (who knew he was such a beast in the box?), the result never really looked in doubt. Once Luke Shaw was tripped by Jordie Clasie and Ibra dispatched the resultant penalty the game was effectively over.
Pogba was a revelation, which you’d hope he would be given he’s the most expensive footballer in The Universe. His contribution was surreal. Here was a central-midfielder capable of dribbling past an opponent, of driving with pace and skill into the opposition’s half, of creating, tackling and providing a goal threat. Given that we have watched, for what feels like a lifetime, as our one-paced midfielders have plodded around, passing sideways or backwards, terrified to step forward, you must forgive us for feeling a little faint.
What this team now has, which it never did under Van Gaal, is a spine, from the suddenly under-utilised David De Gea, through the absolutely exceptional terroriser of forwards Eric Bailly, the reborn Marouane Fellaini, Pogba and the egotist, Zlatan. And yes, I did say, ‘Marouane Fellaini’, the figure of fun and derision, a symbol of the sheer mediocrity of David Moyes the manager, all elbows and dreadful plodding. But Jose had a plan. Why not find a position for the Belgian where he doesn’t have to plod anywhere? It’s so simple yet so ingenious. And so Fellaini, the deep lying defensive midfielder was born, tasked with loitering in front of the back four, breaking up play and playing simple passes to those capable of running faster than him. When defending drop into the box and head stuff away. Fellaini can do that. It’s quite brilliant.
With Pogba and Ibrahimovic added to the completely unphasable Eric Bailly, United suddenly have their mojo back, a strut and seam of arrogance, brilliance and directness running through the side which has been so lacking. The game has become more simple. The Ivorian is tasked with clearing forward, where the likes of Pogba, Martial, Mata, Rooney and Ibra are given licence to head straight for goal. Do not pass Go, do not collect £200. There is no fear of losing the ball, as there was last year. United created some problems for themselves against Southampton by gifting possession in dangerous areas, but rather that than taking no risks at all. Under Fergie players were encouraged to express themselves, to use their ability to create time or space and we now have a return to this ethos. Defensive solidity is important for Mourinho, and his wide players are expected to work back when the opposition is in possession, but once the ball is recovered the attacking players, including the full-backs, are allowed to commit forward.
United could have had more than the two they scored on Friday. Rooney remains a quandary, despite his cross creating the first goal for Zlatan, and Martial is still out of sorts. His direct running was excellent, but his finishing betrayed a lack of confidence. Ibrahimovic’s all-round game can be better and Pogba looked understandably rusty on occasions. But the notable thing about the Southampton game was that United won comfortably regardless. This was classic Mourinho, particularly at home, where his side is simply more decisive against an opponent who did create chances of their own. At a goal up Van Gaal’s side almost always retreated and tried to shut down the game. Under Jose United are always chasing another goal, just as it should be. Most importantly they are not afraid of conceding or losing the ball. You get the impression that we will be regularly treated to the strangely unfamiliar concept of the comfortable win this season. Remarkable. With Bailly, with Blind proving this writer very wrong and with Valencia and Shaw performing well, United have the surety at the back to allow those ahead of them to play positively with confidence
Mourinho will know, however, that there are much harder tests to come. One gets the impression that Southampton are still searching for their identity under new manager Claude Puel and that previous opponents Bournemouth may be in for a long, hard season. But under Van Gaal these are the games in which his side faltered. Both corresponding ties were lost last season, including that wretched defeat inflicted by Charlie Austin’s late header.
Mourinho, wary that he has yet to rotate his squad, made assurances post-match that he would give all of his players game time in September, as the cup competitions get underway. Some may not be around to grasp that opportunity. Marcos Rojo remains available for sale and rumours are circulating that Phil Jones may be on his way out, possibly to Stoke. Blind, Bailly and Smalling are ahead of him at centre back and even Rojo was selected in his stead on the bench on Friday. It may be time for United’s demented buffalo to follow the lead of Jonny Evans and rebuild his body, career and confidence elsewhere.
Whilst Mourinho drives United forward with his never-ending quest for perfection, former manager David Moyes reminded us all of why he was so unsuited to the top job at Old Trafford. Having spent the week telling any interviewer who would listen that he intended to release Sunderland from their perpetual relegation battle, he watched his side perform dreadfully in a home defeat to local rivals Middlesborough. When asked what he would say to fans who feared that a scrap at the bottom end of the Premier League was likely once more he replied, “They’d probably be right. I think it will be. I don’t think you can hide the facts. Why would it suddenly change?”
Err, because you spent the week telling the fans you thought you could change it Dave? Two games, two defeats and already Moyes is managing expectations and preparing the groundwork for failure. Three years ago United decided that he and not Mourinho was the man to take the club forward after the retirement of Sir Alex. It is a decision as mind-boggling now as it was then. Fortunately we got our man in the end and the future under him looks considerably more bright (and enjoyable) than three and a half months ago. It is too early to tell if the title is a realistic prospect, but the start of the season has unrelentingly positive.