1. Matic The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle
It has been evident for a number of years that central midfield has been a problem area for United. Paul Scholes retiring and Michael Carrick ageing created a void in the centre of the park – where United have always been traditionally so strong. David Moyes made attempts (cough) to resolve the issue with pursuits (cough) to sign Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos (Louis van Gaal perhaps getting in the way of that one). Ander Herrera did arrive but it’s no coincidence that Jose Mourinho placed a big emphasis on centre midfield in his first two summer transfer windows at the club.
Paul Pogba was his showpiece signing last season and now Matic has arrived to be his sparring partner. Pogba often looked like a player who lacked direction last season on the pitch – likely because he had so many different jobs to cover throughout a match. Matic will put a stop to that. His discipline at the base of midfield is exactly what was lacking last season. Pogba will be afforded the freedom to focus on what he does best – influencing the play in the attacking third.
Matic deservedly picked up the man of the match award on Sunday. His performance was dominant – winning the majority of the aerial battles in the middle of the park; picking out the right pass to ignite moves offering the attacking players a platform to work with; and even showcasing a bit of flair in leaving three players for dead down the right flank with some deft skill.
His football intelligence was the area that impressed most however. He was always in the right area defensively and displayed his nouse when supporting Rashford with a run around the outside to keep West Ham’s defenders guessing in the build up to the Lukaku goal. A great start.
2. Lukaku Hunger
Lukaku’s biggest critics have regularly pointed to the fact that for Everton he looked a world beater one week and uninterested the next. With all due respect to Everton, I think he previously lacked a stage that had his tail up regularly enough. He certainly has that now. His interviews after signing this summer indicated as much – during jovial interviews with Paul Pogba, Lukaku displayed an edge and seriousness intimating that he now needs to put the real hard work in and take his game to the next level.
His performance on Sunday certainly reflected that. Lukaku bust a gut on a number of occasions to get on the end of through balls or to take the game to West Ham with some barnstorming runs. His two finishes were emphatic – the first coming after very intelligent movement in behind. Lukaku’s power, pace and finishing has never been in question, but it looks like this move has ignited an attitude and hunger to take his game to the next level, which all bodes very well for United. Expect the goals to flood in.
3. Mourinho Has His Mojo Back
Jose Mourinho has pulled off a pretty decent Austin Powers impersonation over the course of the close season – salvaging his mojo which seemed lost to another decade. The Mourinho that returned to England in 2013 resembled a very different figure to the ballsy, cocksure figure that arrived with a bang in 2004. Since his return his mood has only worsened, with many questioning whether he had lost his magic touch.
Over the past few weeks however, the Mourinho of old has reared his head – which he seemed to confirm himself during the pre-match press conference ahead of the West Ham game on Friday where he announced that he was feeling ‘on fire!’.
It’s a good thing too – they say teams reflect its manager and there is a lot of logic attached to it. How often did United sides out-do themselves under the ultra-ambitious believer in Fergie? Mourinho’s dour mood last season was often reflected in United’s play.
It’s no coincidence that Mourinho’s recent positive and upbeat mood correlated with United’s performance on Sunday – which was their most positive and confident showing for a long, long time. Positive energy and thinking spreads and there certainly seems to be a good feeling among the squad at present. Long may it continue.
4. Rashford/Martial Threat
Ivan Perisic may well prove to be the biggest loser from Sunday’s encounter. Pablo Zabaleta will be having nightmares for months from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s double job on him on the left flank. Both showed inconsistencies last season, however Sunday suggested that the two will go head to head for the left sided role this season which makes a lot of sense.
It should serve to rise each other’s games by virtue of the two competing for the one starting spot. It also provides a like-for-like option on the bench should one not be performing – or in Sunday’s case, if you want to humiliate the right back that little bit more!
One performance isn’t going to define Mourinho’s decision on whether to sign a winger such as Perisic or not, however it may re-adjust his thinking to perhaps focus more on adding an attacking left back instead.
Personally, I feel that left back is a bigger problem position – with the only fit options of Blind and Darmian offering precious little in attack. The hope would be for Luke Shaw to come through and claim the position, but it’s a big risk banking on that to happen. Danny Rose would be a great addition, however he may need to talk to a few more papers – and perhaps MUTV, before Levy would consider selling.
5. Start As You Mean To Go On
I know, I know, I know, it’s only one game. However, we have seen first-hand before that a good start to a season can set the tone for what lies ahead. Sunday’s performance had several shades of the emphatic 5-1 opening day victory United recorded over Fulham in ‘06/’07. United went on to spend only two match weeks off the top of the table that season, winning the league by 6 points ahead of a well fancied, Mourinho-led Chelsea side.
There are a number of similarities between the ‘06/’07 season and the current campaign. United started the 2006 season on the back of a couple of barren years and weren’t tipped by many to compete at the top – much like the current campaign. The 2006 side contained a couple of richly talented prospects in Rooney and Ronaldo that had yet to really explode onto the scene – the same could be said for the likes of Pogba, Lukaku, Rashford and Martial among the current crop.
Also, Summer 2006 saw United sign Michael Carrick who provided United with an anchor in midfield, which had been sorely missing before. United have this Summer (finally) signed Carrick’s replacement in Nemanja Matic.
To round off the prophetic similarities, United added an experienced Swedish striker in Henrik Larsson mid-way through the ‘06/’07 season to carry themselves over the line to Premier League triumph. What are the chances of a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic re-signing this coming January to aid United on their end of season title push?