How would you like Manchester United to beat you this year
The top of the EPL table looks eerily familiar two games in. Not so much to last year, but to the standard course of affairs we’ve become accustomed to. Two Manchester teams perch on top, Chelsea is in fourth and the only anomaly Hull separate the juggernauts of English Football. Aside from Hull, who I am dubbing Leicester of 2016 two games into the season (no, I’m not panicking, why are you asking?) all as it should be. However, if you did bother to watch any of the games, or at least peruse the highlight sections of Match of the Day one thing should be somewhat clear. United are a team to beat this season.
All three top clubs won, but it’s the manner in which they went about their business. In either of City’s victories the squad appears to still be grasping around for some sort of cohesiveness. Their score line vs. Stoke was flattering and it is clear they are still getting used to playing the way Guardiola wants them to. Both Clichy and Sagna are on the other side of 30, putting them firmly on the other side of a football renaissance, which is something that is required if they will be thrust into the inverted full-back role. I think City will be fine once they grasp the peculiarities of the way Pep enjoys to play, but until then, they remain shaky.
Chelsea have a familiar feeling to them, but Conte is still moving the pieces on the board to see what fits where. Diego Costa remains your favourite real-life soccer villain, as frustrating to watch as he is talented at times, but the midfield is where the Blues will need to address the uncertainty. Left out of the starting 11 for the second match straight, Cesc Fabregas came on to provide a much needed spark and vision to a side devoid of it with Kante and Matic patrolling he back four. If used right, he may occupy the same role Pirlo has at Juventus for so many years. His quality was enough to win the game with one well-timed pass, but that doesn’t mask the fact that Chelsea needed a break in the end to scrape by.
United on the other hand look sure of themselves and are only getting better. In Zlatan they got the goalscorer they craved for since the departure of Van Persie, and with 3 goals in 2 games the Swede has not let them down so far. Zlatan has a nose for the goal and simply fills all of the right positions when required. He isn’t asked to track back far, but is capable in playing from deep when required to hold the ball up if United break. His huge frame is the perfect target inside and he proved that with a key header.
Paul Pogba settles the midfield, combining strength, athleticism and vision to carry both the defence and the offence. He often launched into galloping runs, drawing in defenders like a vortex before trying to make something happen. He is the kind of transcending talent that makes attention gravitate towards them, making him the perfect foil for the likes of Mata and Zlatan or the speedy wingers. In his first game back, Pogba appeared to have the positional freedom to play a true box-to-box role, launching into sprint as soon as United won the ball and not stopping until he was at the tip of a chance on the other end.
More importantly, United appear to have settled firmly into a Mourinho style of play. In their win against Southhampton, the Red Devils gave up possession (47 to the Saints’ 53) yet still looked increasingly dominant. The play of Daley Blind as a centre back has been the biggest revelation so far, on par with two marquee signings. While not a prototypical Jose centre back (that is the battering ram that is Eric Bailly) Blind is intelligent and precise at the back, often snuffing out moves before they even started and then cultured enough to make the right play to spring Pogba, Martial and Ibrahimovic onto the front foot. The dutchman is the man reason United have allowed only 4 shots on target in 2 games, lowest in the Premier League.
This team is structured to play fast and unrelenting football from the back foot. With speedy wings and intelligent back like Blind, Manchester is able to break through it’s midfield and into attack in mere seconds. Mourinho has also been clever in using the physical Fellaini to shield Blind’s smaller frame where necessary and trusting the towering Belgian to make the right play. So far, the manager has reaped the rewards of such trust.
But here is the fun part, they have all of the parts to quickly rebuild and reconstruct to play another kind of football. It’s just no one has forced them to yet. They have the strength and accuracy to keep the ball in the middle with Rooney, Pogba, Fellaini and/or Mata and bubbling up the pressure. That is the mark of a great squad that it can act as a veritable tactical chameleon and United happen to be just that.
The one note is that the play of Pogba and Ibrahimovic make Wayne Rooney’s presence in the squad almost expendable. Not featured next to a premier forward AND a premier midfielder for a while Wayne is a cross roads. He can do both the attacking and the midfield things fairly good, but now he is surrounded by two players who can do them “excellent.” Rooney’s touch isn’t surefooted enough to occupy the no. 10 and operate in close spaces. He is at best when he is allowed to roam and be a bulldog, but there is little space or patience for that in a Mourinho system. So far, Rooney has been able to keep his place on the pitch, but as the mistakes compile, he may not be able to say that for much longer.
United are build to mirror the mindset of their manager and have demonstrated an apt understanding about the way the Special One wants them to play. They simply clicked faster than anyone else now and everyone else is playing catch-up.