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1. Old Trafford is a Fortress
To coin one of those ridiculous football phrases, Old Trafford is a metaphorical fortress. By virtue of this 4-1 win against Rafa Benitez’s workmanlike Magpies, Manchester United set a club record of 38 games unbeaten at home.
Reliable home form has been the bedrock of any successful season of the past 25 years, so it is pleasing that Old Trafford appears to have been restored to its more familiar status of a ground that visiting teams don’t relish coming to. During the Moyes and Van Gaal reigns, there were far too many ordinary sides who came away from Old Trafford with three points – often deserved – as sides (including Newcastle) arrived without fear to attack a weak and vulnerable Manchester United side.
Mourinho has certainly developed a side that feels comfortable and superior to most opposition when playing at home. Even last season, when there were far too many draws, it represented progress. Sides were no longer coming to Old Trafford with the same aggressive attacking mentality, with most setting their stall out for a point. This latest win shows marked progress as United have a 100% winning record at home this season, and following on from the sticky away form at Huddersfield and then Chelsea, a return to goalscoring form.
I must admit, following Newcastle taking their early lead, I feared the worst. Another gilt-edged chance for Newcastle followed and Victor Lindelof had offered the latest insight into why he has featured so sparingly this season. However, to their credit, this fear didn’t seem to filter through to the players. It was important to get the goals before half time, and once in front, the rest of the game was a cruise. United were worthy winners, finishing the game with 65% possession, 16 shots on goal, and in truth could have won by more.
2. Mourinho gave the fans the side they wanted
Mourinho selected an extremely attacking and fluid line up, as for the first time this season he played both Rashford and Martial from the start. Juan Mata was re-introduced to the side, with Mkhitaryan dropped altogether following his alarming loss of form.
There is a defined change in mentality from Mourinho when he plays inferior Premier League opposition at home. In contrast to his caution and focus on the opposition epitomised by the complete concession offered at Anfield, he is content n the need to dominate games at home, with much less emphasis on positional discipline and tactical rigidity.
The players repaid him with some excellent attacking link up. The players selected complimented each other, offering a mixture of pace, power and cunning to create numerous genuine chances against an organised Newcastle side who finished the game chasing shadows.
With the exception of the central defensive pairing, which was fielded due to necessity as opposed to choice, the starting side was exactly what I would have hoped to see. I for one hope to see more of the same in the coming weeks. There is immense attacking ability in this squad, and I see no reason why the same positive approach in selection as well as mentality cannot be adopted home and away on a regular basis.
3. Pogba is the catalyst
Never has the phrase ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ seemed more apt. Last season, whilst Paul Pogba was still adjusting to life back in Manchester and coming to terms with his talismanic role in this team, I often despaired at his poor return of goals, assists, and lack of ability to control games.
The fact is evident for all to see: Manchester United are a totally different proposition with Pogba in the side. The entire squad was visibly lifted by his return, as he possesses qualities in terms of his athleticism and range and variation of his passing that no-one else in the squad can come close to. Ander Herrera is a player I rate highly, but he has been in poor form of late, and is generally a player who offers excellent work rate and technical proficiency, but lacks the dynamism of Pogba. Mourinho has referenced the same. Pogba is a genuine world class talent, and providing he remains injury free, I believe he will continue to prove that on a consistent basis this season.
4. Momentum has been Restored
There were very few negatives to take away from Saturday’s game. United turned in an excellent performance and displayed strength of character in coming back from a goal down that has been missing the last few seasons. I firmly believe that in any of the last 4 seasons, Newcastle would have come away with at least a point having taken the lead. The side continued to play fast, exciting football, and that is a welcome sight after the dreary performances we were subjected to since Anfield.
There was a dominant narrative that momentum was lost by surrendering the initiative to Liverpool that day. By once again scoring 4 goals in this game, with the significant boosts of Lukaku breaking his scoreless streak, the return of Pogba, and the continued excellent form of both Martial and Rashford who have finally been unleashed, it is hard not to be optimistic about the coming weeks. In the space of this 90 minutes, my faith has been restored.
It is still unrealistic to expect to catch Manchester City if they maintain their relentless charge towards the title, but there are continued signs of genuine progress, and in the current context, that is all most fans are asking for.
5. Zlatan is Back
Laying my cards on the table, I wasn’t convinced by the wisdom in re-signing Zlatan to another huge contract this season. At 36 years old, I was concerned that not only he wouldn’t return at the same level, but it could lead to him being unnecessarily accommodated in the side.
I already feel like I was wrong. Zlatan is box office. He oozes confidence, he lifted the stadium when he was introduced for the last 15 minutes, and perhaps most importantly you can tell his team mates believe in him. He is a winner, and he is a leader. In this current squad, where winning hasn’t necessarily been a habit, the influence of Ibrahimovic will be as crucial off the pitch as much as on it.
It is hard to tell from his brief cameo how sharp Zlatan is, but he came on in the ‘10’ role, and although it would indicate a shift in tactics, there is no reason he cannot be extremely effective if deployed in that role when necessary. He will certainly bring goals and added physicality to the team, and offers an impact from the bench.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, bring on Basel in midweek!