One month ago, the circus surrounding Manchester United felt like it was peaking. Rumours swirled around José Mourinho’s security in the hot seat when Newcastle United visited Old Trafford in the league, with Chelsea away ominously to follow. Sure enough, United conspired to ship two goals in the opening 10 minutes, against a Newcastle side who had not taken the lead in any of their previous games this season, and went in at half-time 2-0 down.
The home crowd showed signs of mutiny and much of the ire was directed towards the directors’ box rather than the dugout. Ed Woodward looked particularly uncomfortable for a man reportedly ready to sack his manager. Mourinho, meanwhile, had to pick up the pieces of another calamitous first half.
What followed was remarkable – and not only in the context of that game. United scored three in 20 minutes, inspired by Juan Mata, the winner from Alexis Sánchez off the bench as they lurched into stoppage time. The script was there but it still looked unfathomable as it unfolded. Old Trafford was louder in that second half against Newcastle than at any time in recent memory. Pride temporarily restored amongst fans and players, palpable relief for the manager and respite before the international break. Corners of the press even sympathised with Mourinho, finally shifting some of the blame and focus to the board, as they contemplated the genuine possibility of the club sacking their last semblance of a plan.
Mourinho, having appeared on the brink but escaping with a win, didn’t revert to type and showed flexibility in recognising Mata’s impact, retaining him in a central role against Chelsea. An especially bold move in an almost suicidally attacking team on paper, in a fixture United have an appalling record, against a team flying in the league, at a ground Mourinho will feel the full force of his past. United very nearly won it – United should have won it – but United never win it there. Mourinho’s reaction was reflective and calm in the aftermath of what felt like points dropped, and being baited by a Chelsea staff member at the death, a nod towards a rapid change in collective mood.
This mood stalled against a far superior Juventus at home where the main positive was keeping the goal difference down. United treated it only as a blip in their mini-revival. Paul Pogba was afforded a freer role in midfield against Everton at home than at Chelsea, and duly orchestrated a dominant, then unnecessarily uncomfortable, 2-1 win. Everton were poor yet United flirted with giving away another two points. They didn’t, in the end. United leapfrogged Everton in the table and gathered more momentum heading into a set of games that a few weeks ago would have been unpalatable.
Bournemouth away, before Juventus and City away in a week, still represented an acid test which many expected United to fail. And, as so often when the spotlight is on, United forgot how to defend, conceded first and generally tested David de Gea’s patience. On this occasion, however, United’s fightback came before the break and they could have undeservedly sneaked in front before half-time. In an open match which swung either way, United got their reward after Pogba dug out a clipped cross perfectly over the defence in injury time. Marcus Rashford made sure to steadily control and place the chance home this time, previously thrashing a similar effort straight at a solitary defender. A last-minute winner can momentarily do wonders for the soul, but Mourinho was as pleased with the desire to get it having missed several chances prior. Progress for United, however small in the grand scheme of the season, feels genuine and it is a significant turnaround to be sat seven points from the top for a team recently in such apparent disarray. United, to their credit, haven’t wilted despite giving themselves plenty of opportunities to do so.
Of course, there are still issues – chief amongst them in midfield if United are serious about troubling those further above in the table. Anthony Martial’s current form is rescuing a misfiring forward line, as is Romelu Lukaku’s continued absence. The defence remains skittish when pressured but Victor Lindelöf is growing into the side, alongside Chris Smalling whose performances personifies the team’s Jekyll and Hyde nature. Smalling is frequently a liability but, in fairness, tasked with carrying out a role supervising the backline earmarked in the summer for someone more proficient. Smalling would be an adequate squad player and is taking much of the flak, some deserved for a player with over 300 appearances for the club, some not.
This is the most open Mourinho has been about his attempts to alter United’s defence-first strategy of his first two seasons. It also goes a long way to explaining why he was so intent on signing a centre back & what he considers his ideal attack #mufc pic.twitter.com/1aa4t0uKZ1— James Robson (@jamesrobsonES) November 4, 2018
Mourinho candidly, as ever at United when not under acute stress, discussed his band-aid solution and concession to protecting the defence. Mourinho conceded that other areas of need in the team were being compromised. The timing of this disclosure might cynically not be coincidental given draws against Juventus and City away would certainly be acceptable where results are still needed, never mind avoiding a hammering, but the point remains. Although perhaps not the one Mourinho intended.
Nemanja Matić, Mourinho’s ever-present foot soldier, appears to be undroppable, and the only thing the midfielder’s holding currently is United back. Matić provided welcome muscle and calmness on the ball last season to steady the ship, but United now need to move regained possession more quickly – if only to give the defence a break. Furthermore, Matić’s inclusion to protect his colleagues would carry more weight were he more mobile and, frankly, better at it. Mourinho seems afraid to let go of his trusted steed but there’s hope in other decisions and amenability recently when faced with nothing to lose. Unfortunately, Mourinho is unlikely to view the next two fixtures as free hits, but may be tempted to change his approach in the two home games against Crystal Palace and Young Boys later this month. Against Bournemouth, both Fred and Ander Herrera might have given the manager food for thought.
Fred had more touches (41) and won more tackles (4/4) than any other player on the pitch in the first half vs. Bournemouth— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) November 3, 2018
A positive. pic.twitter.com/y4r0M58ISz
Fred was widely and bizarrely criticised for his performance, yet was the most effective of United’s three midfielders first half, crucially looking to play difficult balls forward from the off and nearly putting Mata and Sánchez through before the interval. Mourinho said he wanted Herrera, replacing Fred on 55 minutes, to provide more energy and more cover for Ashley Young, with United attacking heavily down the left side via Luke Shaw and an increasingly influential Pogba. Mourinho might also have been spooked by Fred’s falling to the ground near the end of the half knowing he couldn’t afford to go a man down against a good side still chasing the game. Fred has been wound up easily this season. Regardless, Herrera slotted in well.
“But I felt that the team needed a player like Ander to give us balance in that position, to give us more pressure, recover the ball faster and also to project Ashley Young, so I think I was happy with that change,” Mourinho confirmed. Might Mourinho be so bold and apply similar logic to replacing Matić? After all, there’s currently little to lose.