Amid the controversy that surrounded United’s first success of 2017, it was easy to lose focus on the significance of the result.
United extended their winning run to seven games in all competitions and have now won their last six Premier League matches, their best run since they won seven in a row in the 2012-13 season.
If the enthusiasm about the recent winning streak was somewhat curbed by the fact United remained sixth in the table – albeit closer to both Arsenal and Liverpool than they were before this set of fixtures – the impact Jose Mourinho had on the match can’t be dismissed.
With United toiling against 10 men, the Portuguese’s two subs, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, changed the game. It makes for a welcome change to have a manager capable of influencing the game in a positive way with his subs, rather than one whose main concern seemed to replace a fullback with another fullback.
Mourinho is slowly beginning to turn things around at Old Trafford and the role Rashford and Mata played off the bench was a measure of the club’s progress.
Albeit for different reasons, the duo had been among the players whose future many thought would be placed in jeopardy by Mourinho’s arrival.
Experts and pundits rushed to suggest Mata would again be jettisoned by his former manager, who was happy to sell him to United during his second spell at Chelsea.
Rashford, meanwhile, was destined to spend time on the bench, or on loan at another club, due to Mourinho’s apparent distrust for young players.
Things have turned out rather differently. Mata is enjoying arguably his best season since swapping London for Manchester three years ago, scoring and creating in equal measure and developing a knack for finding the net when it matters.
The Spaniard’s winner knocked City of the League Cup and, bar for Olivier Giroud’s late equaliser, his goal would’ve earned United three points against Arsenal.
The emergence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mourinho’s inclination to play quick players behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic have somewhat limited Mata’s playing time, but he’s adapted to his new role without complaining and has made the most of his opportunities.
Whether that can be attributed to Mourinho mellowing down or to the Spaniard working harder to impress his manager remains to be seen, but United are clearly seeing the best of him. Mata has scored six goals and assisted three over 1,472 minutes played all competitions so far, meaning his return of a goal every 245 minutes is only marginally inferior to the 2014-15 season’s ratio of a goal every 242 minutes, when he played 35 games over the season.
His contribution compared to the time spent on the pitch is also markedly better than last season, when Mata scored a goal every 337 minutes over 58 appearances win all competitions.
Much like his teammate, Rashford has found first team chances harder to come by in recent months but his performance at West Ham told the story of a man who had regained his confidence.
Despite attempts to suggest otherwise, Louis Van Gaal was forced into giving Rashford a chance because of Anthony Martial’s injury, rather than by design.
The 19-year-old was always going to face an uphill struggle to live up to his debut season and much was made of his limited game time in December, when he played only 66 minutes across five Premier League games.
However, up to that point the Wythenshawe-born lad had started eight league games, which can hardly be interpreted as a sign of distrust from the manager.
As is the case with Mata, Rashford is getting used to a different role, a change in circumstances brought along by the arrival of Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan in the summer, which has given United a depth of attacking options they had sorely missed.
Mata and Rashford have defied the doom and gloom merchants. Not only do they have a future at Old Trafford, they will play a pivotal role in United’s revival under Mourinho.
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