Following Manchester United’s steamrolling of West Ham to complete a fun opening league weekend, much of the focus was on home debutants Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matić. With good reason. Both did brilliantly and both answered two major issues with goals and defensive midfield steel. That Lukaku had to pass the Man of the Match award to Matić afterwards despite scoring twice demonstrated Matić’s impact and how much United have needed it. Not least Paul Pogba, but the biggest beneficiaries of Matić’s presence were the three attacking midfielders. All three performed well and all were key to overwhelming a poor side trying the customary keep-it-organised trick which gave so many teams a point at Old Trafford last season.
United didn’t have to worry about dominating central midfield and set about overloading West Ham. Previously, playing two holding midfielders made things unnecessarily stodgy and ponderous while compromising Pogba. At home against a team sitting deep, a commanding defensive midfielder gave not only security to the defence – but crucially, freedom to those ahead of him. Pogba was at relative ease and had four options tearing around when he put his head up. Matić was able to join in too, such was West Ham’s ineptness. Lukaku duly obliged twice, and you’d assume José Mourinho would have been primarily satisfied with his two big signings.
Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford were selected to act on the manager’s attention before game, and all delivered. Anthony Martial even got a lucrative 10 minutes. Mata and, in particular, Mkhitaryan moved the ball quickly while Rashford remorselessly toyed with Pablo Zabaleta. Quite why Mourinho is insistent on a left winger with Martial already at his disposal is puzzling. A new signing would certainly open up further options, and may suggest one of Martial or Rashford is due to move centrally soon. Rashford looks much more ready to operate as or behind a striker than last season, but neither he nor the team are quite ready yet. Martial has occasionally been deployed up front to good effect by Mourinho, but that would currently be an even greater leap of faith. Jesse Lingard will likely be the biggest casualty of any incoming winger, now or by next summer, unless those ahead of him drop off. Fortunately, Lingard got a lot of minutes last season and should remain an important, trusted squad player. Competition is fierce – much depends on the formations used assuming Mourinho will play Lukaku as often as he did Zlatan Ibrahimović. In any case, not relying on one striker to make the difference is exactly what Mourinho would have wanted to see evidence of, and he got plenty last weekend.
Against Swansea away on Saturday lunchtime kicking off the second weekend, Mourinho is expected to recall Ander Herrera and 4-3-3. Matić with Herrera and Pogba ahead either side appears suitable for more demanding situations, and would complement Herrera as well as Pogba. Herrera will be under pressure to take any chances going or he could suddenly find himself acquainted with the bench again for long periods. More likely Mourinho will tailor the team and therefore his personnel to the task at hand, and Herrera and others will just have to be patient. Herrera is – like Jonny Evans – one of those players who benefits greatly from playing regularly, so he will hope United are equally effective with three in central midfield if and when it comes around.
The supporting cast of Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata and Lingard are key for more goals and more wins, thriving off Lukaku, Pogba and Matic, and at least three will have an opportunity each week. Four of them assisted in rousing the home crowd into guttural delight – making teams fear coming to Old Trafford will be as much their responsibility as it is the spine of the side.
That "GWON" when United attack is refreshing to hear.— Mozferatu (@may26th1999) August 13, 2017
Old Trafford’s ambiance is probably Mourinho’s biggest task this season. 4-0 wins were typical of Chelsea’s earlier league titles under him, but Mourinho is not getting carried away and highlighted the three consecutive victories at the start of last season for perspective. Warnings against complacency and a reminder of where United last finished in the league, all very sensible stuff tempering a genuine buzz around the club again.
With options comes decisions and Mourinho will have to select and rotate his attacking midfielders accordingly – keep them all firing, the rest will look after itself. Easy. How United set up away, and further against their challengers, will become clear in due course. Alongside Bailly, Matić and Lukaku, there was also a welcome edge to United’s play with Phil Jones bullying Javier Hernández out of any quirks and Rashford putting himself about with an endearing swagger. More will be required this weekend. Mourinho in a suit again away at Swansea and you’ll know he means business this season, betraying any attempts to keep expectations in check.