Mourinho may have found his best midfield
Paul Pogba made a surprise start against Leicester, after only training for a few days following his post-World Cup break. The Frenchman was dominant, putting in the kind of display that United fans hope to see on a consistent basis this season. It was the two new faces next to him in midfield, however, who provided the most promise. New signing Fred looked right at home. The Brazilian had one or two nervy moments, but he provided some much needed creativity from deep midfield, and demonstrated his obvious ability on the ball. Andreas Pereira, now a part of the first team after two seasons spent on loan in La Liga, was even more impressive.
Before yesterday, the United academy graduate had only played holding midfield in pre-season under Mourinho. More comfortable out wide or in the second line of attack, Pereira was a revelation in the role usually occupied by Nemanja Matić. He was comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, moved it forward with purpose, and patrolled the area in front of the backline with authority. Pereira may lack the experience and physicality of Matić, but he is a clever footballer, and no lightweight. While the big Serbian recovers from injury, Pogba, Fred, and Pereira may well prove themselves the best available combination in the middle of the park.
Mourinho’s mood improves, but rift remains
José Mourinho had a face like thunder all summer. He criticized his players, his bosses, the league, and he’s been complaining about seemingly everything. After yesterday’s win though, the notoriously grumpy Mourinho cut a much happier figure. He singled out Luke Shaw for praise, a player of whom his criticism has been withering in the past. He did the same for Paul Pogba — even naming him captain on the day — after earlier in the summer taking great pains to note how unimpressed he was with the midfielder’s displays for France.
Mourinho couldn’t resist another dig though, and still managed to take a thinly veiled shot at chief executive Ed Woodward, and his lack of backing in the transfer market.
“I find myself in the beginning of the Premier League with the market closed in the situation I thought I was not going to be in. For us, it will be a difficult season because I had my plans for many months. That’s football management. I think football is changing. Football managers should be called now more head coaches.”
Yikes. Mourinho may have promised to stop speaking about the lack of incoming transfers (for now), but he laid bare the fact that he asked specifically for reinforcements that did not arrive — putting Woodward rightfully into the firing line if things go pear-shaped.
Sánchez is either out of place or out of form
Alexis Sánchez was supposed to be primed for a season in which he would once again operate at the peak of his powers. The Chilean forward just had his first summer break in nine years, and a full pre-season in which to get to know his teammates and understand the demands of his manager. His pre-season form was encouraging. In fact, alongside Andreas Pereira, he was the standout performer on United’s US tour.
All that counted for naught yesterday, because Sánchez was rank. Marcus Rashford was anonymous, and Matteo Darmian was useless, but Manchester United’s highest paid player could still be considered the worst player wearing red on the pitch. Sánchez gave the ball away more than any other player, and frequently made the wrong decisions in possession. And when he made the right ones — like trying to play in a teammate rather than dribble into a dead end — he would make a mess of those too.
Sánchez operated successfully in a central position over the summer. One explanation is that he is ineffective cutting in from wide positions, in which case Mourinho will need to adjust his formation to get more from one of his best players. Another is that he is simply a spent force who has developed bad habits from his time dragging a barely average Arsenal team to relevance. Whatever the reason, he needs to improve quickly if he is to justify his place in the starting XI.