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The Great Red Debate: The keys to United’s apparent return to form

In this week’s Great Red Debate, Andi and Jack discuss the driving factors behind the Red Devils’ recent victories

Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Ryan: Last time we convened for a GRD, it was all a bit doom and gloom: Manchester United had lost three games in a row and we did our best to assess the situation and point a way forward for José Mourinho’s men.

And, in the week or so since then, United appear to have found their way out of the slump, stringing together back-to-back victories over Northampton Town and Leicester City.

The former was a workmanlike, if rather unimpressive performance to overcome League One opposition in the EFL Cup.

The latter was, for at least the first 45 minutes, the most exhilarating display seen at Old Trafford for quite some time. There was movement, flair, ingenuity and ... goals! Four of them in fact — what a time to be alive!

The 4-1 win over the reigning Premier League champions was the result of a new sense of fluidity within the side, with Paul Pogba — who registered his first goal since his world record-breaking summer transfer — Juan Mata, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera all putting in stellar performances.

While a certain player’s absence was conspicuous to say the least.

It was the kind of performance that if feels as though we’ve been waiting for for quite a while now, and it brought with it a freeing sense of relief as much as anything else.

We know better than to get carried away with the performance against Leicester and there are tougher games to come. But in was a massive step in the right direction after a couple of tough weeks.

So, what’s changed? What do you guys think was behind this improvement? And how much do we attribute to Wayne Rooney’s omission from the starting eleven?

Andi: It's extremely tempting to conclude that this was entirely down to Wayne Rooney's absence, because however you feel about United's captain, he is always, always the centre of attention. Even when he's on the bench. And as I noted when I was doing the ratings, it was hard to ignore the fact that literally all the jobs he's tried to do this season — from line-leading striker to no. 10, from all-action midfielder to corner taker — were improved in his absence.

The theory with Rooney has been that his place in the team is justified by the moments of excellence he can still conjure, and that those moments are worth the congealing effect he can otherwise have. The first half performance, at least after the first goal, served as a rebuttal of that: United were quick, sharp, relentless and most importantly coherent as a team, attacking in waves and, for the second goal, picking a team apart in a fashion that we haven't seen for a while.

However, it wasn't just about him. There were other decisions that came good, most notably the reintroduction of Juan Mata and the decision to drop Marouane Fellaini in favour of Ander Herrera. The latter in particular was excellent, energetic and tidy in possession, and between the two of them they made Manchester United's midfield a far slicker unit. Is it a coincidence that Paul Pogba suddenly looked like Paul Pogba? Perhaps. But surrounding a good footballer with other good footballers seems like a decent policy to me.

Jack: Yep, I certainly agree. Many of the pundits who pride themselves on their rather more intellectually discerning analyses have scoffed at the idea that Rooney was United’s big problem, and instead have spent time drawing lines between red shirts on rather depressing screengrabs to prove their point. And while their initial premise — that one player a performance doesn’t make — is certainly true, they may well have been going a little overboard in suggesting the depth of United’s struggles.

Though we certainly don’t seem at the level of Manchester City, it goes without saying that United have a squad of very good players, and a manager who traditionally manages to get something like the best from those at his disposal. We don’t yet have a world class team, but we’ve got the makings of it. I think we have reason to believe that United’s recent upturn in form isn’t just a spike, but a reversion to the mean. Andi, do you see any reason to uphold the argument that Mourinho’s out of his depth in The Modern Game?

Andi: It's an interesting question, and it's possible to make a very persuasive case that his methods — both his preferred tactics and his motivational methods — are no longer at the cutting edge of footballing thought. But then, that happens to everybody; all football people are hurtling towards obsolescence. It is worth remembering that Mourinho's last title was the season before last, so he's not that far behind the curve. And it's also worth remembering that he apparently told the powers that be at Chelsea that the squad needed ripping up and rebuilding, but was ignored. Quite the way to be proved right.

Going on the basis of his early months at United, I think it's clear that while he has made some mistakes on a match-to-match basis, the general tenor of the team has improved and so, too, have the performances. I'm not necessarily confident that Mourinho can create a team that will fundamentally change the way football in this country is played; he's done that already. But I see nothing to suggest that he can't oversee a title challenge and a return to the Champions League, which is the job he's been given. Apart from anything else, seriously good players want to play for him, which is always nice when the transfer window rolls around.

Going back to the performances, how close do you think United are to that impossible dream, a settled first team?

Jack: I certainly have the feeling that the last couple of weeks has seen us move some way closer to the team that Mourinho will generally favour in the league games this season. History has shown that Mourinho tends to select a best 11 and stick with it, and given that the squad players should get plenty of game time in the cup competitions, I imagine his ‘league’ side will be a fairly steady one.

That said, there are still (as far as I can see) three questions that Mourinho will have to answer before we really achieve the impossible dream: the first is whether Chris Smalling or Daley Blind will partner Eric Bailly when Luke Shaw returns to the starting lineup; the second is whether Mourinho really is brave enough to drop Rooney for the long haul, or whether he’ll try and integrate him in a different fashion; and finally, whether the Rashford-Mata-Lingard axis is a settled one. It would clearly be a big disappointment if we don’t see more from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, though for the time being, it’s difficult to see him making the first 11.

The flip-side of that question is, however, a positive one: Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard — two local lads and academy products — have both played a role in United’s recent ‘resurgence’, not just over the last couple of weeks, but the last few months as well. To finish off, I wonder if you’re yet convinced that they’ve got the quality to seriously hold down first team places in a team with title ambitions (and more); or are we still in the honeymoon phase?

Andi: It seems clear that Mourinho is very taken with Rashford, and it's not hard to see why: it's not just that he's fast, skilful and finishes excellently, but he plays almost totally without fear. I don't know that he'll play every game — he is still very young, and Anthony Martial needs games as well — but I think we can comfortably consider him part of the first-team and, on the evidence so far, good enough to deserve that place.

Lingard's a more interesting case. I've mentioned elsewhere that I think of him being very compatible with Mourinho, and by that I mean as a kind of high-class, hard-working utility player. I don't know that he's necessarily good enough to be first-choice in any of his positions (and I vaguely expect Mkhitaryan to supplant him in the first team once form and fitness return) but I think he'll end up playing plenty of football this season, either as sub or as cover. And on balance, I think that's fine: titles are won by the best squad, not the best team, and we've seen that when he's fit, he can play. Plus his videos really annoy a certain kind of middle-aged football fan, which is always nice.