For three painstaking seasons, United players have been stricken with fear and devoid of spontaneity and freedom. Any semblance of creativity, unpredictability or shift from the mechanical would be noted scathingly in the dreaded clipboard of doom. Louis van Gaal had his moments, albeit fleetingly: He can take credit for bringing through the likes of Rashford and Fosu-Mensah as the most promising youngsters, he ended a long overdue wait to deliver the FA Cup as his coup de grace.
They are minimum prerequisites in United’s long-standing ethos. We are breathing in a different air now. It is one of optimism, a genuine belief that United can get back to where they belong: The countless false dawns and sub-par recruitment which defined the Van Gaal era have been replaced by a clinicalness on and off the pitch. Three years in coming and an tenure in its infancy maybe, but the old adage of good things coming to those who wait appears to have rung true.
Historically, Mourinho’s trophy laden teams have been physically imposing and got off to electrifying starts — a relentless juggernaut in churning out victories. With the acquisitions of Pogba, Bailly, Zlatan and, in true water to wine fashion, even Marouane Fellaini looking impressive against Bournemouth, the ingredients are finally in place for United to be challenging once again for the silverware they once made their own.
For that to become reality, Mourinho will need to rectify one fundamental Achilles Heel in United’s recent demise- an underwhelming, undistinguished record away from Old Trafford. Defeats last year at The Emirates, White Hart Lane and Upton Park were particularly damaging. Not to mention further ignominy at Swansea, Bournemouth, Stoke, Sunderland and West Brom. Add damaging draws at relegated Newcastle and lowly Crystal Palace to the tale of travel sickness and it is clear where improvements need to be made under Mourinho.
United’s patched up side came up short at The Vitality Stadium last season, with Eddie Howe’s side being Jose Mourinho’s first competitive opponents of the season, not easy ones at that. Paul Pogba was suspended after his run-in with Italian officials was somehow transferred to the Premier League, leaving the spotlight fixated solely on a certain Swede.
His presence on this side is already abundantly clear for all to see. A serial winner, an imposing presence, a confidence fitting the badge emblazoned on his shirt and a drive to not settle for second best- hallmarks of title winning United sides of bygone eras. His partnership with Wayne Rooney is a work in progress but two goals in two games shows United have a potentially game changing striker spearheading the quest to get United back to the top. The guy is clinical and is already becoming a bit of a cult hero.
Eric Bailly was a major unknown quantity to myself and, I’m sure, many of you. Two man of the match awards in his first two games is some feat for a man coming into the most physical league and having to overcome language barriers. He has the attributes to be a revelation for United for years to come- pace, strength, composure, physicality. He will make mistakes, as any young defender has ever done, but there is huge potential in Eric Bailly. Of course, you cannot be defined from two games alone but it looks like United have a gem on their hands.
To give Van Gaal a backhanded compliment, his defensive organisation cannot be questioned. He did make United more solid. The backhand comes from the fact he sacrificed and compromised United’s heritage and tradition of exciting, fast-paced football. Mourinho’s first competitive line-up again lacked the searing pace attacking wise, with only Anthony Martial being able to boast jet heels, but it was a slick performance with fast, intricate passing between the lines mixed with a defensive solidity- epitomised by attacking displays from Valencia and a revitalised Luke Shaw and obdurate showings from Blind and Bailly.
In short, Mourinho has taken on Van Gaal’s shape oriented structure and is slowly transforming it into his mould- attacking offensive qualities, more in keeping with successful United teams of the past.
It was fitting that Mourinho’s first Premier League goal as United manager came through a player who was subject of much of the pre-game discussion. After one of the game’s genuine nice guys suffered the ultimate footballing insult, I’m sure to a man we were all made up for Juan Mata getting better luck this weekend. It is universally known that he is not blessed with pace, but why do we fixate on what a player cannot bring to a side? Everyone knows Juan Mata is a quality player and can be a key part of our squad.
Friday night will be all about Mourinho’s first venture into the United home dugout and the second coming of a young Frenchman with unfinished business. How much of a part Pogba will be able to play will depend on how he has maintained fitness during his off-season venture to Vegas, with a cameo appearance the likely outcome.
Southampton have held true to their usual close-season business- lose a manager, lose their best players. They started the season with a home draw against Watford and, should United replicate their showing against Bournemouth, should find it tough at a ground they found profitable last season through Charlie Austin’s debut goal.
In eerily similar fashion, Mourinho’s second coming at Chelsea started with a 3-1 away victory. We know how that season ended…