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Manchester United headed to the Riverside on the back of a positive result (if not performance) in Europe in midweek.
A depleted squad for numerous reasons led Jose Mourinho to field an unfamiliar looking side but in the end it proved more than enough against a very impotent Middlesbrough side. Here are five things we learned from victory against Steve Agnes’s men.
1. Antonio Valencia
In what has been a largely up and down season one man has been a beacon of consistency. Antonio Valencia has developed into a fine full-back and has become one of Mourinho’s most trusted men.
It was another typically energetic and physical display at the Riverside rewarded very late on with a goal. Issues at left-back continue for the Reds but the Ecuadorian really has made the right-back birth his own.
2. Squad Depth
Suspensions and untimely injuries on the back of a crowded schedule undoubtedly played their part on Sunday afternoon. Jose Mourinho was forced into numerous changes and the depth of United’s squad was tested.
On the whole United’s fringe men did more than enough and secured a vital three points albeit against a woeful Middlesbrough side.
With 9 games to come in what will be a hectic April for the club following the international break Sunday’s performance will give heart to United’s manager. It may not have been pretty, but the attitude of the team was invariably right on the money.
3. Centre-Back Issues
Sunday against Middlesbrough once again highlighted the Reds’ vulnerabilities at the centre of their defence. There is no doubt plenty of potential but very little proven.
After an impressive start to the Campaign Eric Bailly has looked less assured of late. The performances of Phil Jones prior to yet another injury gave cause for optimism but little was on show at the Riverside to strengthen that line of thought.
Chris Smalling also remains a concern and his mistake for Middlesbrough’s goal could well have proved more costly. The late onslaught was dealt with largely by strong attitudes as opposed to assured defending and it is surely an area the manager will look to strengthen again in the summer.
Jose Mourinho has shown in recent weeks that he is willing to be pragmatic to get the job done. Once more United lined up in a formation deploying 3 central defenders, albeit with Eric Bailly drifting wide and Antonio Valencia pushing on to make things slightly more orthodox.
It was another demonstration that the Special One is willing to adapt and be pragmatic in search of positive results. It’s fair to say that the side have been far from fluent in recent weeks but on the whole, barring a frustrating afternoon against Stoke, the Reds have been getting the results they need.
Now moving into late March, the fact that Mourinho is arguably still yet to know his favoured team and formation gives cause for concern. However, if the team continue to get the job done there can be few complaints. Most would accept that this is another year of rebuilding to be endured and things are moving in the right direction.
5. Defining Period
April will bring 9 fixtures for the Reds in the Europa League and Premier League and it will prove a defining period for a season that could still go either way.
Victory in the EFL Cup brought welcome silverware but failure to lift the Europa League or finish in the top four will leave the season in the realms of underwhelming at best.
The sheer number of games this season has already visibly taken its toll on a side who look tired. A few niggling injuries over the international break may well prove to be a blessing in disguise and Jose Mourinho will need the full depth of his squad over the coming month.
A positive April and Manchester United may well be on the brink of a very successful season. It is hoped that the club can dig deep and provide a strong platform for success moving into the summer.