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1. No Way the Lads
The last couple of weeks have seemed like something approaching a crisis for Manchester United, as they have limply probed around the Old Trafford pitch seemingly bereft of ideas to find the net. In that context, any 0-3 victory away from home is always going to be more than welcome. The true context is that United strolled to an easy victory against what must be one of the very worst teams in Premier League history.
The single biggest take-home was that Sunderland are dysfunctional, disorganised, and look like a side that will struggle in their new home in the Championship. What my viewing of the game did assist with was realising that United are not in crisis; true crisis is following a side managed by David Moyes.
I will only briefly meander off-point, but what he has managed to do to that already poor football team in the space of one season was a timely reminder of that gruesome period that he somehow was named as the heir to Sir Alex Ferguson. From day two in the job he talked of Sunderland’s relegation battle; he has them playing a pedestrian style that consists of trying to feed 35-year-old Jermaine Defoe scraps; he frequently talks about needing luck, creating a general ambience of inferiority; and if he isn’t complaining about getting the chop too prematurely after decomposing the champions of England into plucky underdogs, then he is threatening to assault female reporters for pursuing a legitimate line of questioning. If I was bitter I’d say that Sunderland’s gloating fans who wallowed in United’s 2011/12 final day woes at the Stadium of Light deserve him, but I’m not like that.
They demonstrated against a Manchester United side that were lacking in confidence exactly why they are marooned at the foot of the table without having scored a single goal in over eleven hours of football. Things were easy for United who were able to ease into the game, and take complete control from the moment Ibrahimovic scored on the half hour mark. Before half time, Seb Larsson received a very harsh red card, but in truth it had little impact on the pattern of play. United enjoyed 70% possession, managed 18 shots on goal, and if they were more clinical should have been capable of scoring several more.
This was not a test for United, but if it improves confidence ahead of the real business against Anderlect during the week, and Chelsea next weekend, then that will be a welcome boost.
2. Fellaini got the arm band
The news that Marouane Fellaini was the Manchester United skipper in AN ACTUAL PREMIER LEAGUE FIXTURE genuinely caused the same emotion in my gut as the day, well, as the day David Moyes spent £27.5 million of ACTUAL MONEY to sign him for MANCHESTER UNITED.
It just does not make any sense that a footballer with his abilities can be a regular starter at this club. I’ve been critical of him before, and I cannot stress enough that it is not Fellaini’s fault; he is a committed professional with some extremely good qualities. It’s just that his shortcomings are generally as a footballer, and his strength is in being tall and extremely awkward. How this man can actually lead this side into a match is a worrying indictment of the current status of the club. Manchester United are a massive club with ambitions of rapid return towards the summit of European football. There are vast amounts of talented midfielders either at or attached to the club. Fellaini should never have been signed in the first place, never mind remained at the club for four seasons. To have him start at all illustrates the current lack of creativity, and Mourinho’s reluctance to allow creativity and flair to flourish.
Felliani is useful as a physical presence, and to offer a route one approach. With the ball at his feet, the only thing he is likely to do damage to are my eyes. Just because he has better feet than you might expect does not mean that he has good feet, it just emphasises the fact that he looks like a joke player created by a 12-year-old on a PlayStation. At different times this season he has kept players, proper footballers, like Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of the side, and has been retained over the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin.
He is a player who has been booed by the Old Trafford faithful in the past, I am not alone in my strong feelings. He did not play poorly by his own standards against Sunderland, but the status of being named as captain is baffling. He wouldn’t get close to the side of any other top six side in England, as they all play with a fluid style featuring midfielders of exceptional technique, athleticism and creativity – qualities Fellaini is sorely lacking.
3. Zlatan is Benjamin Button
This is his comparison, not mine. “I am getting better and better. I feel like Benjamin Button – I was born old and I will die young”. The stats reflect that fact that he is improving with age: he scored 232 goals in 529 matches before turning 30, and 250 in 307 games since. That may also involve comparing the quality of the French and English leagues to the Spanish and Italian, but there is no disputing that he has had a phenomenal season which continues to build momentum.
Against Sunderland, he could have scored more than his blistering first goal, but he did exhibit an extra level of class throughout the game. He exudes confidence, and that clearly has an inspirational effect on his team mates. He was demonstrably missed during his suspension, and despite the fact that he may not offer blistering pace or a great deal of movement off the ball, he is a crucial and physically dominant focal point for this side. From watching the Everton game, there were moments I thought he did look like the veteran player that he now is, but even in that game he provided a moment of smart movement to score a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, and against Sunderland he managed to bully a defender and engineer himself some space to rifle home. He is an extremely intelligent player and makes the most of his considerable attributes.
The main concern surrounding Zlatan is what the future holds. He still hasn’t, albeit understandably, committed to the club for next season, and is only ever going to be a temporary solution moving forward in any case. His looming presence and importance to the side has limited the opportunities for Rashford and Martial to play in their preferred central roles, which obviously is damaging for the club moving forward if it continues to stunt their progression.
4. Shaw’s brain gain
Luke Shaw got 60 minutes to provide a reminder of why United made him the most expensive teenager in world football. Given that he wasn’t always positioned in front of Mourinho, I can only assume it was his own brain he was using, and other than picking up a needless booking, he didn’t do a lot wrong defensively, whilst always offering an attacking threat down the left side. He is a powerful runner who gives the team an extra dimension compared to the other options used ahead of him this season, and is far and away the best option available at left back.
Given Mourinho’s continued talk regarding his attitude, there is obviously an on-going situation to which we are not privy, and my instinct would say that Mourinho will have justifiable reasons for limiting his appearances in the first team. I was not a fan of the way he has played this out in the media, and having already criticised him for his shortcomings, to accuse him of not having a football brain seems counter intuitive when trying to get the best out of a young player who must have a level of self-doubt in any case.
However, judging on his performance at the Stadium of Light, it doesn’t appear to have negatively impacted his confidence, as he was positive and progressive each time he got the ball. He certainly has all the tools to be a phenomenal asset to Manchester United, and I hope that Mourinho knows how to handle his character in terms of his man-management. Tough love is all well and good with the right character, and I hope Mourinho has his psychology correct in this instance.
5. The wide players pitched in
The quality of the opposition already discussed, it was pleasing to see Marcus Rashford tuck away a long overdue Premier League goal. He is so blatantly a special talent who can be a central figure of any future success, and as we so often see it can sometimes just take one goal to signal a spree. He has been guilty of missing too many chances this season, but took his late goal well, and has proven his coolness in front of goal in the past.
It is crucial, if United are going to salvage success from their league campaign, that they begin to score goals from alternative sources. Mkhitaryan is another man who has proven he has an eye for goal, and after his own recent barren spell it was pleasing to see him, again albeit too easily, score with a confident drive across the goal of the hapless yet talented Jordan Pickford.
The late yet lively cameo of Anthony Martial was a reminder of the talent United do possess up front. It is hard to diagnose why goals have been so hard to come by. The talent is apparent and in most games the chances have been created, so when analysing it is easy to believe that this side actually isn’t too far away from competing at the top of the division.
The key attribute, however, of serial winning teams is belief. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a serial winner and it shows in the way he carries himself, and in the way he puts himself forward to score crucial goals at crucial times. The talent in this squad is not in question; but both Mourinho and Zlatan have hinted that the character of many in the team is fragile. If that is the case, the guilty parties will not survive at the club. It will be interesting to see if Jose believes major squad surgery is necessary.