On Sunday, Manchester United began their Premier League campaign at home to West Ham, and they did so in moderately surprising fashion. Not only did they win, they won convincingly. And not only did they win convincingly, they won entertainingly.
Given how United struggled for wins at times last season, let alone convincing, entertaining ones, it's no surprise that people are thoroughly excited. And in the great post-game hyperbole competition, we are happy to declare Thierry Henry the winner, after he compared United to Arsenal's invincible side of 2003-04. Apparently he saw "power, pace, guys with ideas and legs". Always useful.
Chances are that United will lose at least one game this season; most teams do. But the readiness with which Nemanja Matić and Romelu Lukaku took to their jobs brought another title-winning side to mind, one slightly closer to home. Whether by accident or design, José Mourinho looks to be heading back to the mid-noughties, when Alex Ferguson and United won three titles in a row.
This period marked the apotheosis of Ferguson's use of squad rotation, as he chopped and changed and tinkered and tweaked his way to domestic dominance, along with his second Champions League. Famously, the team that started the 2008 final against Chelsea had never played together as an XI. But despite all this, there was a solid core around which his team rotated: a back four (Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, plus fullbacks), then two deep-lying midfielders (usually, but not always, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes), and then Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
What made that team interesting is that Ferguson didn't just rotate personnel, but also formation and approach, depending on the situation and the competition. This is most starkly illustrated by the 2008-09 season, in which £30m signing Dimitar Berbatov started more league games than any other forward in the squad, usually as one of a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo out on the wing. In Europe, however, he started only five games, as Ferguson preferred to pick Ronaldo, Rooney, and one of either Carlos Tevez or Ji-sung Park in a 4-3-3.
We can see, perhaps, the beginnings of a similar set-up in this United squad. We can probably assume that Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku are going to start every game for which they are fit. If Nemanja Matić's debut — and Mourinho's pre- and post-game gushing — is any indication, his place is probably nailed down as well. Then there'll be a back four (occasionally a five) and a goalkeeper. Hopefully.
So that leaves three (occasionally two) places up for grabs, to be allocated between Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Anthony Martial. Plus this mysterious fourth “from the wings” signing, should he ever arrive.
And so, anything Mourinho decides that he wants, this squad can — in theory — give him. A defensively-minded 4-3-3? Put Ander Herrera or Michael Carrick in the middle with Pogba and Matic, depending on how much energy you want, and then stick Lingard and Rashford on the wings, or move Antonio Valencia forward. 4-2-3-1? Well, who and what would you like at No. 10? Mata's craft and finishing, or Mkhitaryan's direct running? Pogba's all-round brilliance, or Fellaini's gregarious chest and inhospitable elbows?
All across the pitch, there are interesting choices that fundamentally alter United's approach. On the left, both Martial and Rashford like to cut inside along similar lines. But Martial is the better dribbler, whereas Rashford is perhaps a touch quicker and a slightly better finisher. Alternatively, Mata — or, the one with the left foot — can offer something different again. The same holds on the right: we saw Mkhitaryan cutting in against West Ham, but Lingard will definitely get a chance to harass people out there.
(Curiously enough, perhaps the only formation that United can't really fill at the moment is the good old-fashioned 4-4-2. Nobody bar Valencia can really cross.)
There are huge caveats to all of this, of course, in both the variety and the comparison with 2006-09. For a start, all this takes place in the fanciful land of theory. The real world, by contrast, is an awful place full of injuries and suspensions and players that have, for whatever reason, fallen foul of Mourinho's malice and caprice. There's also the nagging thought that while United were great, West Ham were really terrible.
Most importantly, there are parts of this core that aren't anywhere near the standard of Ferguson's sides. The back four lacks a partnership as reliable as Ferdinand and Vidic, the squad lacks a left back as good as Patrice Evra, and there's no attacking force as consistently potent as peak-era Rooney, let alone Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo. There's plenty of potential around the squad, of course, and one or two players that might end up among the very best. But they're not there yet.
Finally, there's the trickiest aspect of rotation: the actual judgement calls. What made that phase of Ferguson's management so impressive wasn't just that he rotated personnel and shifted shape, but that he did so so effectively. Every game was a different question, every team sheet a new solution — and the vast majority of the time he called it correctly. If Mourinho does pursue a similar policy, then he'll have to make a lot of good decisions.
Still, that's the job. United probably aren't going to go a season unbeaten, and may not win the title. But Mourinho has a versatile squad filled with options, and in a game that United would have drawn last season, he picked an attacking team that delivered a handy thrashing. All in all, a promising start.