These are still early days in Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United revolution but two games into the league campaign and United appear to have recouped their lost swagger making a veritable step towards resurgence.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a spectacular header in the first half and added a second from the spot to give his side a comfortable 2-0 win over Southampton on Friday.
But all eyes were on Paul Pogba who made his first start for the club since completing his world record transfer from Juventus.
The 23-year-old, although looked a bit rough on the edges, showed why his old club spent a fortune to have him back. Playing alongside Marouane Fellaini in a two-man midfield, Pogba completed more take-ons than any other player on the pitch combined in the first half. He fitted seamlessly in the middle as Fellaini screened the defence hence presenting him ample opportunities to demonstrate his incredible thrust and dynamism while surging forward.
Mourinho fielded an unchanged XI from the Bournemouth game, with the exception of Herrera who was replaced by Pogba, in a 4-2-3-1.
Paul Pogba's game by numbers vs. Southampton:
8 take-ons completed
2 chances created
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 19, 2016
This is a system that brought much grief to United fans last season. Louis van Gaal’s pragmatic to a fault approach vacuumed the air of exuberance that was ever present at Old Trafford on match days and instead, left an aura of utter hopelessness in its wake.
United played 0-0 draws five times in the league, scored 49 goals all season – one more than Sunderland, and ten fewer than Chelsea and Southampton who finished below them.
The Dutchman won just 39 out of the 76 league games he managed at Old Trafford giving him a win percentage that is worse than Andre Villas-Boas’s record with Spurs.
United averaged around 72 passes per chance created in open play – most by any team in the league. That is three more than Aston Villa who got relegated at the back of one of the worst league campaigns in Premier League history.
“I’m not saying they’re becoming robotic but they’re doing things that are not natural to them,” said ex-united player Danny Higginbotham, accurately presenting what was on every United fan’s mind.
Yet against Southampton, playing the same rigid 4-2-3-1 that was so dreaded under Van Gaal, United were at their scintillating best while driving forward. There was an intensity in their game that had been missing in the last three seasons. The urgency was apparent with both fullbacks Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia galloping forward at every opportunity. In fact, it was Luke Shaw’s surging run to the d-box that won United a penalty that was converted by Ibrahimovic.
Perhaps this corroborates the theory that it is not the system that is at fault, it is how you utilize it.
It is for all intents & purposes unclear, whether Mourinho will continue with this formation over the course of the season given the kind of players he has at his disposal. But this is a system that he is most familiar with throughout his managerial career. His title winning Chelsea side boasted an axis of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas in midfield, with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian forming the three-man attack that stood behind striker Diego Costa.
But it still begs the question, if 4-3-3 might well be tailor-made for this side. Not merely because of its flexibility, but also to get the most out of Paul Pogba who is at his devastating best in the final 40 yards of the pitch. The Frenchman, certainly did not have a bad debut, but it almost felt like United, like Didier Deschamps in the 2016 UEFA Euro final, underused him.
Fellaini has been an unlikely star under Mourinho but he will have his work cut out for him if deployed in the same role as versus Southampton against a superior midfield. The Belgian essentially served as a windbreaker for United’s defence allowing Pogba the freedom of movement around the midfield.
As a law of unintended consequences, Pogba had to drop deep every time Southampton had the ball in their possession. And with Wayne Rooney as the No.10 and Juan Mata starting on the right, there is little to no chance of a swift counter-attack unless the ball is passed or lobbed over to Anthony Martial on the left. This leaves United with limited options on the break.
But unlike last season, United have the luxury of having an elite squad full of gifted and accomplished individuals. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Bundesliga’s Players’ Player of the Year, provides a whole new dimension in United’s tactics up front. Marcus Rashford who was a revelation last season will serve as an understudy to Ibrahimovic. Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard will provide width and intensity whenever called upon. Ander Herrera, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick will slot in besides Pogba at the sound of a whistle.
It’s the dawn of a new era at Old Trafford. There is an overwhelming sense of optimism among fans, particularly evident on Friday as the stadium was bouncing. There is a newfound hope that the club could finally challenge for the league title – something that was an utterly inconceivable thought during Van Gaal’s tenure.