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A thing of rare beauty was witnessed at Old Trafford on Sunday with the home side collecting three points for the first time since 24th September. A relief as well as a decent result, what did we learn from the game?
1) Micky’s Taryan it up
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the match-winner and looked every inch the player we were expecting when he was signed from Dortmund last summer billed as the “best player in the Bundesliga”. It has taken until December, but he has finally arrived. Why it has taken so long we can only speculate, the most telling quote from Mkhitaryan after the Everton game stating Mourinho was not at fault for leaving him out for so long previously: “the problem wasn’t him; it was me”. He did have fitness issues as well, including a reported thigh strain after the Manchester derby, but it appears the problem was as much psychological as physical.
Even the most casual observer of the game against Tottenham Hotspur could see that any such mental constraints that had been afflicting the Armenian captain have been banished. He looks a perfect fit with a Mourinho team. He worried the Spurs defence wherever he picked up the ball, as he floated between right side and central positions, offering an important variety and fluidity to the United attack. He rarely gives the ball away, yet is adventurous and creative in his play, and is part of that dying breed of attackers who can dribble with the ball at pace.
Psychology is such a key part of football – ability at this level is a given. Mkhitaryan has given this team an extra dimension. Although competition for places in the wide areas is fierce, no-one else can offer the direct running power and goal threat that he has provided. He is now confident, and his goal showed the level of self-assurance he has thankfully re-discovered. His run on to Herrera’s excellent slide rule pass was timed to perfection, he had the pace to pull clear of the defence, and his finish was absolutely emphatic, as he opted for power and hit the roof of the net with the conviction of a player who scored 23 goals last season.
Of course, the concern is that he was stretchered off in the closing minutes of the game following a cynical challenge on him from Danny Rose to stop another typifying 50-yard dribble towards the Spurs penalty area. Mourinho’s early prognosis is he should be back within a couple of weeks as the extent of the damage to his ankle is minor. I for one hope he is right as he is crucial to this team moving forward. With a template of a side that looks to attack in a direct and incisive fashion, Mkhitaryan is a big reason for believing that the side’s fortunes can improve in the second half of the season.
2) 4-3-3 is the way forward
Of course, that is far too sweeping and general a statement, as tactical rigidity is no longer realistic in a diverse and competitive league. However, the team remained unchanged from the previous weekend, and it is good to see some consistency of selection, which in the past has been a Mourinho hallmark. The balance of this team looks better than many of the other teams selected this season.
Several quality players had to be left out to facilitate this selection and formation: Mata, Rooney, Rashford, Blind, Bailly, and many others. However, the collective is always more important than the individual, and without wanting to labour the point this side resembled a classic Mourinho team. A back four that is now used to each other; Carrick lying deep to facilitate the creativity and freedom of Pogba, and the work rate, tenacity and industry of the always excellent Herrera; topped off with genuine pace out wide and Zlatan as a focal point. Everyone appeared to know and understand their role, and it is finally starting to look like a team with an identity.
Ander Herrera is fast becoming the irreplaceable element in the team. He has that aggressive, sometimes even snide side to his game that makes opponents hate playing against him, and opposition fans resent him. United don’t have enough of those players. He competes for absolutely everything, his distance covered is always the highest in the side, he makes the most tackles, and he completes the most passes. He is also a general pest. You can see him talking throughout the game, tripping and pulling players back to gain an advantage, and constantly wanting to be involved. Those are all characteristics we saw from Keane and Scholes in their pomp. Herrera is like the embodiment of Mourinho on the pitch in the way he acts as well as the way he plays. You can tell he has a passion for the club and an affinity with the fans, and he would get my vote as the team captain from next season onwards.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be important roles to play for the likes of Juan Mata as the season progresses, and no doubt different opponents will call for different approaches. However, this team is starting to look like a first choice XI, and to accommodate Mata or Rooney would mean sacrificing some of that balance. Neither are mobile enough to play alongside Carrick, and neither have the pace to play alongside Ibrahimović.
There are other squad members who could slot straight into the system, albeit to varying degrees of quality: Shaw or Blind at left back, Bailly or Smalling at centre back, Schweinsteiger for Carrick, Schneiderlin for Herrera, and any of Rashford, Lingard or Depay in the wide areas. There is good strength in depth that will be important bearing in mind the potential number of fixtures as cup competitions progress.
3) The cobbled together back four is working
It can’t be denied – they may have been thrown together due to necessity at the time of the Swansea game, but the unlikely back four of Valencia, Jones, Rojo and Darmian has been effective. The outing and clean sheet against Spurs was their best yet. Their best chance of the game was a Wanyama header from a first half set piece, but genuinely United managed to keep the Tottenham attacking quartet extremely quiet at Old Trafford and they deserve huge credit. Jones and Rojo in particular put in superb displays, as they won virtually all of their direct challenges for the ball – Jones challenging Rose inside the box in the dying moments and coming away cleanly with the ball being the stand out moment.
Perhaps more importantly than individual performances, they worked well as a unit. You could see the communication, concentration and cohesion to earn a vital clean sheet and ultimately three crucial points. They have not conceded more than a single goal in any of the games they have played. Of course, defending goes beyond the back four and they have been assisted greatly by the protection offered by Carrick and Herrera.
This then creates a few questions, and it will be interesting to see how they are answered. Eric Bailly is now fit again, and has been United’s best defender so far this season. Does he dislodge the developing partnership between Jones and Rojo? Personally, having kept a clean sheet I believe they should be given the chance to continue. The next question though, is whether Phil Jones can stay fit? This really must be make or break in terms of his career at the club as he is now in his sixth season. He is a player I have always liked, and I want to see him succeed, but he has never been able to sustain a run in the side before breaking down with a succession of injuries. In addition, he had been used in numerous different positions. Now, he finally appears to be fit and healthy, and playing in a regular and settled back line. Should he be able to avoid injury, he could develop into the player Sir Alex Ferguson thought he would when he bought him as an 18-year-old. He is not the most graceful looking player, but he offers pace, physicality and leadership. Despite his awkward appearance and famous ‘Beaker’ facial expressions, he actually makes very few errors and his fitness will dictate whether he becomes a permanent fixture in the side, or surplus to requirements.
Like I said, Marcos Rojo deserves to keep his place in the side, but am much less optimistic about his long-term prospects. He had an excellent game against Spurs, but he is a rash player. His two-footed, off-the-ground lunge at Everton last week was a perfect example. It was needless, it was dangerous and it should have left United with ten men for an hour of the game if the referee had done his job properly. His discipline worries me almost as much as him having the ball at his feet. That coupled with his own horrendous injury record are reasons why I don’t see him remaining in the side for the rest of the season, but ultimately, if it’s not broken why fix it?
4) This was the first ‘big win’ under Mourinho
As I said earlier, psychology is a huge part of football. The fact was unavoidable, it is now December and Manchester United had not yet beaten any team above them in the league table. It was said before the game, and even more after, that United needed to win this one. Performance was secondary, result was primary. In the current climate, it was certainly not a given that this would be achieved. Spurs are hard to beat, and Manchester United have found it hard to beat anyone. The days of “Lads it’s Spurs” are long gone. Old Trafford is not the intimidating fortress it had been for many years.
They have been close but fallen short far, far too much these last few weeks, so to hang on to the result was pleasing. This was a typical Mourinho win in a season when his usual tried and trusted methods have back fired. However, this was a satisfying victory. Spurs are a side that are good and tidy on the ball, and they enjoyed 60% of possession. However, they genuinely created few openings as United remained disciplined and much more potent looking on the break. With the single goal lead, Mourinho was content to consolidate as the game wore on. This has backfired against Arsenal and Everton recently, but it worked here to good effect.
With consistency of selection, and some momentum from beating a genuine quality side, the important thing now is progression. This result, alongside the good performances in the EFL Cup and Europa League, must breed confidence. A run of winning results is a necessity in order to begin closing the gap on the top four. A result like this is overdue and could provide a spring board. It is, however, just one result. A failure to win away at Palace on Wednesday renders it almost meaningless.
Although results have been, as has been much publicised, disappointing, those who have watched this team will have seen progress, and I do believe there is cause for optimism and that the second half of the season will show significant improvement.
5) Old Trafford is not in love with Marouane Fellaini
Before he was introduced as a very late substitute, Marouane Fellaini was resoundingly booed by the Old Trafford faithful. This is not the first time either, he was booed loudly as he was introduced as a second half substitute against CSKA Moscow last season, and at other times since. Regardless of my feelings towards him as an individual talent, I don’t agree with him being booed.
I was as frustrated (and vindicated) as anyone else last week when he clumsily and needlessly gave that late penalty away at Goodison Park. I was also not happy to see him coming on to potentially do the same thing again on Sunday. But for his own fans to boo him is not justified and leaves a bad taste. Whether he should be selected in the side or on the bench is a different debate as to whether he deserves to be booed by his own supporters. It is not beneficial to anyone – the term ‘support’ is self-explanatory. United’s supporters have proven themselves to be a loyal and genuine group in the last few years, as we have sampled the unfamiliar feelings of failure and even boredom.
In that time, I have been proud that the side have been cheered through the adversity, and a sense of perspective has prevailed. I have never wanted Fellaini in the side, even when he was briefly riding the crest of a wave under Louis Van Gaal for a period. He is not good at the things he is supposed to be good at, and he is not good enough at the things you are surprised he is good at. A little like Marcos Rojo, he is rash and at times can be a liability. That does not mean that the answer is to boo him when he is introduced. That is petulant and it is counter-productive. Whatever else you say about him, he is a committed professional who puts in maximum effort, and in my opinion, deserves the support of his own fans.
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