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1) Fergie time is back
The last three years have been bleak, as we all know. We had become accustomed to the indominatable, never-say-die Manchester United spirit which so often brought last minute drama as time and again Ferguson’s sides would snatch last minute winners. There were so many examples over the years – hence the phrase Fergie time – it’s hard to pick a favourite. The classics that come to my mind are Mark Hughes’ volley against Oldham in the FA Cup semi-final in 1994; the two late Steve Bruce headers against Sheffield Wednesday in the first Premier League title winning season; Ole Solskjaer in the FA Cup at Old Trafford against Liverpool in 1999; Michael Owen in ‘that’ Manchester derby; and there were a couple of fairly late ones in the ’99 Champions League final as well.
Anyway, the point being it was a regular occurrence, and it wasn’t luck. Gary Neville described it in his autobiography, it was drilled into them. Keep playing, keep being brave, and you will always get one chance. No matter how late in the game, you will get one chance. Make sure you take it.
It’s not luck, it is belief, arrogance even. It’s a psychology, in fact it’s a philosophy. Not an LVG philosophy, much more simple than that nonsense. Keep playing and the goal will come. It was amazing how that left the club along with Ferguson. I don’t recall a single late goal during the Moyes reign, apart from goals conceded, and with LVG I can count them on two fingers.
That’s one reason yesterday’s late late goal was so satisfying. It looks like it’s back. It’s back because the arrogance is back. It sounds like a cliché but I think it’s so often true that a side is a reflection of the manager’s character. We have a winner in charge now, and the players seem to have been quickly reminded that they are Manchester United.
A last minute winner is so satisfying, there’s just something about it. I’d take it over a 3-0 win any day, just to get that moment of euphoria. The best thing about it is everyone else hates seeing this side of United coming back. People are starting to hate us again and that’s a good sign.
2) The chances were there
It may have taken until virtually the last kick, but United created an abundance of chances to win the game. The stats reflect that – 29 shots on goal with 9 on target. It can be frustrating playing a side like Hull when they are resolute and disciplined and the goal hasn’t come. Last season, the LVG side wouldn’t have come up with an answer. United would have dominated possession but offered little thrust and penetration (good choice of words there) and would have finished up limp, but with 80% of the possession.
A positive from yesterday is that chances were being created, particularly in the second half. The pace and directness built up as the game progressed, and chances were thick and fast, and the door was continually being knocked right until that special moment at the end. Rooney, Zlatan and Pogba had all gone close, and it couldn’t be argued that United deserved the win.
Even had the winner not come, it wasn’t the same old United of the last three seasons. Creating chances, opportunities and scoring situations was not high on the Van Gaal agenda compared to ball retention. That morbid, relentless, moribund play is hopefully consigned to history. I honestly felt like if I had seen Antonio Valencia cut inside and pass backwards one more time I was going to caber toss my 42 inch widescreen into my back garden. Valencia is maybe the best example of the change in emphasis. Don’t just keep possession, do something with it. The ball is going forwards more, things are a little more direct, and this team will, I can say with certainty, score a lot more goals than in the last three seasons, even if only one of them arrived yesterday.
3) Rashford is knocking on the door
It wasn’t just the goal, it was everything. I will set my stall out early: I love Marcus Rashford. I hadn’t even heard a whisper of his name until that February night he found himself in the side to play Midtjylland, really by default after Martial got injured in the warm up and there was literally no one else. In the opening moments of that game I stupidly felt sorry for him, I thought he looked like a small boy out of his depth. I could not have been more wrong. He hasn’t looked back since.
He plays without any fear, even under Van Gaal! Every time he gets the ball, he tries to make something happen, and it usually does. He has so many attributes: he can glide past players, he can score all sorts of goals, he can play wide or central just as effectively, and he has a predatory instinct. Best of all, he’s one of ours. He has a huge future ahead of him, and it doesn’t seem like it bothers him any more than the prospect his milk approaching its use by date. He never seems flustered, and he’s never scared. He was even able to come on as the England team had forgotten how to control their limbs against Iceland at the Euros, and almost rescue a result.
It was the same against Hull. As the clock ticked on the tendency would be to panic, to play the simple ball, take a long range shot. He doesn’t do that, he plays with freedom and belief in his ability to beat players, and went close and made things happen before the goal.
It is good for him that he is not shouldering the burden of spear heading the attack all on his own at 18 years old, and that should help to keep him playing with that expression and fearlessness. But how long can Mourinho keep him out of the side? I don’t want to bang on about it, but Rooney is still being accommodated in this team. A place is being found for him, even out on the left as the game wore on yesterday, just because he is Wayne Rooney. That might sound daft as he got an excellent assist yesterday, but the fact I was amazed he went past a player to provide that assist shows how out of character it is. He is still capable of quality moments, but he should not be keeping Rashford out of the side. I think the shape and fluidity of the team would benefit without Rooney.
4) Mkhitaryan made a difference
I’ll admit I haven’t seen an awful lot of our new arrival from Borussia Dortmund, so it was good to see him come on and have an impact against Hull. Along with Rashford, he added impetus and, crucially, pace to the side. He looks like a Mourinho player. He is strong and athletic, appears to have a good work ethic, and he is direct. Again he will take players on, and seek to have an end product as opposed to tepid ball retention.
We’ve all heard the stats trotted out about the number of goals and assists he achieved in the Bundesliga last season. He looks well equipped to transfer that form into the English league. I remember having similarly optimistic feelings about Shinji Kagawa when he arrived with a glowing CV, but in hindsight he just wasn’t a match for the club. Of course it is too early to say with Mkhitaryan after a limited amount of playing time, but the early signs look good. Temperament is as important as ability arriving at Old Trafford though, so there are no guarantees. He may have done enough to give Mourinho the excuse everyone has speculated he wants to relegate Juan Mata to the bench again. Mata is an excellent player, but pace and directness are two qualities he doesn’t have.
5) Fellaini has a bad back
Mourinho revealed after the game that defensive midfield lynchpin of his side Marouane Fellaini (it felt strange typing that) has suffered a back injury. He could not say how serious, but revealed it was “bad”, despite him completing the 90 minutes. Assuming that he misses the next game, which isn’t until 10th September and is the small matter of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, it will be interesting to see how he shuffles his pack. There is no shortage of options, but Fellaini appears to have made that position his own. I have to concede the lanky Belgian has played well, but this is a chance for one of Carrick, Herrera or Schneiderlin to stake their claim and keep him out of the side.
The development of this side will be fascinating this season. I think Mourinho has already shown this early in the season that he likes to field settled teams. He has largely retained the same players in his starting XI, save for Pogba taking the place of Herrera. But there are several positions that surely must change as the side evolves and players bed in. Several of these issues are inter-twined. Is Fellaini mobile, effective and industrious enough to play at the base of the midfield against the top teams in the division? Can you get the best out of Pogba if he is restricted as part of a midfield duo as opposed to a trio? How long before Rooney is dropped, and who takes his place? Is Zlatan better in a more withdrawn role? How long will Daley Blind keep Chris Smalling out of the side? Is Martial wasted playing wide?
However, these are good questions to have as it shows the strength of the squad and the genuine competition for places. It is genuinely exciting to think of the prospects for this season, and for the first time in a long time the players look to have a genuine spirit among them, and a belief that they can climb to the summit again. I can imagine LVG’s smug, satisfied grin if he had somehow stumbled to winning the first four games of the season. With Mourinho, it means only that they have taken small steps towards the objective of becoming champions, not just lauding Champions League qualification as if it’s a genuine accomplishment. It feels like Manchester United are back, and it feels good.
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