In the Red Corner is a weekly column by our Premier League contributor David Menon.
Manchester United fans can start 2017 in high spirits as the Red Devils overcame a resolute Middlesborough defense and some incompetent refereeing to end the calendar year with five Premier League wins on the bounce.
Just when it looked like it wasn’t to be United’s day, their French Connection U.K. delivered in the dying minutes. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have had their critics for failing to live up to their price tag and last season’s standards respectively. Against Middlesborough, they showed their worth, popping up with a goal apiece to clinch victory at the death. Pogba was outstanding throughout, dictating play with raking crossfield balls; only the post denied the goal his overhead kick so richly deserved.
Earlier this week, Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggested Pogba’s early season struggles were the result of him trying too hard to justify his world record transfer fee. There’s no denying that in a system that fits him well, Pogba has grown increasingly comfortable and confident and its hardly a coincidence that United’s good run of form has improved over precisely the same period.
As for Anthony Martial, last week, this column expressed the hope that he listen to his coaches and apply himself in training to realise his incredible talent. We got a glimpse of that on Saturday. He tortured Calum Chambers for 90 minutes, turning him inside and out with his direct running and trickery. He showcased his skill in setting up Ibrahimovic’s (wrongly) disallowed goal, and unleashed a 30-yard thunderbolt that thundered off the upright with Valdes dead to rights.
In his post-match interview, Mourinho praised the young forward, but at the same time sounded a warning: listen to me, not your agent. Its frustrating for fans to see players, particularly young ones, receive disruptive advice from agents (think Yahya Toure, Dimitri Teluk & the missing birthday cake). United fans will hope that Martial’s performance, coupled with Mourinho’s comments, spurs him to focus on his football and presage a return to the heights he attained in his maiden season.
2. Mou eventually gets it right
There was confusion when the Manchester United lineup was announced. No Carrick? No Rojo and Jones? Fellaini?! Jones and Rojo had formed an unexpectedly robust partnership at the heart of United’s defence. It seemed an unnecessary gamble to replace them with Bailly and Smalling, both of whom were coming off significant time in the treatment room and were likely to be rusty.
Eventually, news filtered through that Carrick was missing due to illness, but there was still unrest among United faithful. All their losses this season had coincided with Carrick’s absences, so this didn’t bode well. And why on earth was Fellaini the substitute of choice? What about Schneiderlin or Schweinsteiger? Fellaini has been in the Old Trafford doghouse since conceding the 89th-minute equalising penalty against Everton a month ago.
Small pockets of fans booed his recent introductions, so what on earth was Mourinho playing at by going with the awkward Belgian? Mou’s comments on Memphis were telling: “When I have the feeling and information that the player probably has a big chance to leave then I have to care more about the others.” These comments probably apply to United’s “Schmidfield” as well. So Mou stuck to his guns, went with Fellaini, and in fairness, the Belgian did nothing wrong, and added an important block as well.
But as time wore on and with the match goalless, Mourinho showed a willingness to go for the win that was missing during his predecessor’s reign. Throughout the second half, Mourinho made increasingly aggressive substitutions, ending the match with 3 at the back, 3 forwards, 2 attacking midfielders, and Pogba and Herrera in central midfield. It paid off. Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford came off the bench to play crucial roles in securing victory, with Mata setting up Pogba’s winning header, and Rashford being denied a strong penalty shout. United were eventually rewarded for their perseverance and much credit must go to Mourinho for having the guts to go for broke. He played the United way and won.
3. United stay true to traditions
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United have been under fire for abandoning the traditions and practices established during his 26 year reign. His retirement came at a time when United began marketing its brand aggressively, prompting suggestions that the club had sold out on its heritage in favour of corporations and cash. Even David Moyes felt comfortable taking potshots at his former employer’s financial activities. It was therefore fitting that, on his 75th birthday, Manchester United honoured Ferguson’s finest traditions.
United spent the first half knocking hard on the Middlesborough door to no avail, and when Ibrahimovic’s goal was disallowed when it appeared perfectly legitimate, it seemed the referee had conspired against them as well. But both Mourinho and Ferguson motivate their teams by creating a siege mentality: its us against the world. Instead of wilting under consistently poor officiating and conceding a goal against the run of play, United seemed galvanised.
Spurred on by their new manager who put faith in his young talents Rashford and Martial, United attacked frantically and with intensity. Despite having lost 7 points in the last 10 minutes of matches already this season, United turned the tables and rescued 3 points instead.
With the legendary birthday boy watching from the stands, United scored in the 85th and 87th minutes – quintessential Fergie time. Make no mistake, this is Mourinho’s team now. But it is a team that bears hallmarks of Ferguson’s most feared teams – fighting till the death, never knowing when they’re beaten and a dash of exciting young talent – and that bodes well for United fans.
David Menon is a Premier League contributor with a column on Manchester United.