Speechless. The feeling most engulfing right now for Manchester United fans as a stunning and scintillating display saw the Red Devils thrash Premier League Champions Leicester City in the early Saturday fixture at Old Trafford.
Chris Smalling, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba put away goals as United raced to a 4-0 lead in the first half, and Old Trafford was rocking by football not seen at the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at the club. Jose Mourinho’s decision to remove Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney from the first XI paid dividends, as those calling for it were vindicated in a performance that undoubtedly would have shocked many on lookers.
Is this a sign of the future? Or a mirage like so many that have come before it? It might be recency bias, but something about today felt different for United.
So, That First Half…
Beautiful, no other way to describe what Manchester United put together in the first 45 minutes of today’s game. The midfield and attack were so fluid, and despite the defence not being 100 percent solid it did not matter once United opened the game up.
Daley Blind provided two assists from corners and the first came when he put it on the head of Chris Smalling, who wearing the Captain’s armband nodded home to open the scoring. Then a team move which involved Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and then Mata again was finished well by the Spaniard to make it 2-0.
It was the sort of free flowing football that has been missed by United fans for too long, and boy wonder Marcus Rashford tapped home from close range to make it three. Then Old Trafford got what it had been waiting for when Pogba latched onto another Blind corner to head home and make it four.
It was 45 minutes of football that sent a message to United’s doubters.
Changes Pay Dividends
From the United seen so far under Jose Mourinho, today saw a vast difference in selection, style and tempo. United played one touch football at times, working their way around Leicester with seemingly little difficulty. The 4-3-3 used in recent times flexed between that and a 4-2-3-1, with Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford fluidly moving around the forward line and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ander Herrera’s role from deep (ahead of Michael Carrick, which caused concern before kickoff) was also an excellent choice, and he was superb with line breaking passes that opened up space for United time and again. For the most part this allowed Pogba to thrive, driving at the Foxes time and again. His chips over the defence were a sight to behold, and he was unlucky to walk away from today without an assist.
Daley Blind moved to left back and out of central defence for the first time in a league fixture in a long time, and he was superb with his delivery and support for the attackers. His corners were a refreshing change from the many set pieces wasted under Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones.
Mourinho and United were vindicated, at least for another week.
Those Dropped May Not Return Soon
Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini were the casualties of United’s increasingly poor displays, and many felt the best from the likes of Paul Pogba would not come until either or both players were dropped. Neither allow United to play with serious tempo and movement, and their lack of touch grinds play to a halt. Endeavour none the less, that can only do so much.
Both sat and watched their team tear Leicester apart, able to do things they simply cannot when the Englishman and Belgian are on the field. Fellaini is a terrific player when breaking up play, but Ander Herrera was able to conduct the midfield with his superior and pinpoint passing. The Spaniard thrives in a higher tempo system and certainly did so today, in the second half when it slowed his influence lessened.
Rooney’s departure from the first XI meanwhile allowed Paul Pogba to dominate the space he vacated. The team needed to turn things around after some terrible displays, and perhaps now Mourinho is starting to figure out who belongs in his best XI.
Increased Optimism Comes In Those Who Did Not Play
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw all sat out of the squad today with various ailments. Although Mourinho only ruled out Martial in yesterday’s press conference, Shaw and Mkhitaryan did not make the matchday squad and thankfully weren’t required.
Juan Mata was superb, and provided creativity and spark for the first time this season in a stunning way. Jesse Lingard showed his usual endeavour, but there’s no doubting when the Armenian is fit he likely comes in for the English youngster. Daley Blind’s display means Luke Shaw does not need to rush back from his groin problem.
It gives Mourinho increased options and flexibility going forward, as United look to Friday’s clash with FC Zorya in the Europa League.
A Performance Without Over Reliance
Too often this season Manchester United have had to carry passengers which meant United were relying on others to get them over the line. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early goals covered up for United’s attacking deficiencies, and although he has struggled in his last couple of outings and snatched at chances again today it didn’t matter.
Some will ask if it is fair to be concerned about the lack of goals from the Swede recently, but he has still provided an effective presence up front. He leads the line, often taking a battering to play in those around him. He’s also an effective creator, who can take part in quick passing with his teammates to open spaces in the final third.
Daley Blind’s roaming up the left flank was very welcomed by the attackers who supported him, as well as his superb delivery from set pieces. Chris Smalling and particularly Eric Bailly did well at the back, and the midfield and attack speak for themselves.
United escaped without any serious injury concerns, and now move onto their midweek European clash before hosting Stoke City next Sunday. Renewed optimism is a welcome feeling on the red side of Manchester, where United may have just turned a corner.