Manchester United better get used to life on the road. Starting with this weekend’s trip to Bournemouth, the Reds won’t return to Old Trafford until late November — after brutally difficult away days at Juventus and Manchester City. Even though Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth are unbeaten in six and above United in the Premier League table, this is the club’s best shot at victory for a while.
At least United enter the match with some momentum after last weekend’s 2-1 win over Everton. That result closed out an up-and-down October on a high note and moved the Reds up to 8th. A few more wins and we can start thinking about the Champions League places again.
The big news on Sunday was that José Mourinho finally dropped the struggling Romelu Lukaku, replacing him up top with Marcus Rashford. But the manager stressed that he hasn’t lost faith in the big Belgian.
“I think when he scores one goal, life will change for him,” Mourinho told MUTV. “At the moment, I think he’s under that pressure that normally the strikers put on themselves, plus the press obviously. It’s not an easy life for strikers when they don’t score goals.”
“I have no doubts that soon he will start scoring goals,” the boss finished emphatically.
Don’t expect him to spend much time on the sidelines. Although Rashford’s enthusiastic off-the-ball movement was a welcome change from the more deliberate Lukaku.
Anthony Martial continues to dazzle and must surely be among the first names on the team sheet these days. He’s scored four goals in the last three league matches and won a penalty on Sunday, although his exaggerated fall invited accusations of simulation. Happily, the FA announced that they won’t investigate the matter.
Martial’s day could have been even better — his first-half cross set up Juan Mata with a free header that flew straight into the arms of Jordan Pickford.
Afterwards, Mourinho heaped praise on the 22-year-old winger, both for his on-pitch success and the mental adjustments that allowed him to persevere through difficult times. “He’s improving his way of thinking football, thinking training too, and thinking his role in the team, so I’m really, really happy with him,” the manager said.
As always, the less said about the defense, the better. Chris Smalling gave away a penalty for his clumsy tackle on Richarlison in the box. Neither Phil Jones nor Eric Bailly appear to be in Mourinho’s immediate plans, but someone needs to step up and push Smalling.
Victor Lindelöf, on the other hand, earned some kind words from the manager for his continued development this season. But, even with Lindelöf’s improvement, it was another match full of good chances for the opposition. Smalling’s mistake was foolish, but United hardly deserved a clean sheet.
With a midweek trip to Turin coming up, it will be interesting to see how the manager juggles his lineup on Saturday. Ideally, he fields a strong team at Dean Court and can sub out some of the regulars in the second half with a big lead and three points all but certain.
But that’s easier said than done with this Bournemouth side. The Cherries sit sixth in the Premier League table and just advanced to the Carabao Cup quarterfinal. Both are better positions than Manchester United.
On Tuesday, a heavily-rotated Bournemouth eleven squeaked past Norwich City in the cup. Howe made eight changes for the match and it showed. They won 2-1, but it was far closer than they would have hoped.
Plus, the win came at a big cost. Club captain Simon Francis limped off with an injury and now faces a spell on the sideline. “It looked like Simon Francis just tweaked his groin which is why we brought him off,” Howe said post-match. “We’re not sure how serious that is yet.”
Francis joins forward Joshua King on the injury list. Coming the other way, key defender Charlie Daniels recently returned to action and will provide a boost to the Bournemouth backline.
United fans should keep an eye on center back Nathan Ake, a rumored transfer target. The 23-year-old emerged as one of the top central defenders in the Premier League and ticks all the boxes for both Mourinho (defensive quality) and Ed Woodward (long-term value). Whenever United get around to overhauling their defense, Ake will be one to watch.
There's undoubtedly a happier atmosphere around Manchester United this week. The big win over Everton continued the club’s climb up the table, while press reports indicate that United’s board sanctioned £100 million for the January transfer window and intends to fully back José Mourinho. That might not please everyone, but it’s a far sight better than where we were a month ago.
But, with Manchester United, the next crisis is always right around the corner. The Reds better win this one, because — with trips to Juventus and Manchester City on the horizon — it’s about to get a whole lot tougher from here.