Points Over Performance for United

If ever Manchester United were going to lose a match this would have been the week to do it.  With the fallout from the Allardyce sacking saga reverberating through the football world, even Manchester United’s troubles would have taken second place to an English football corruption scandal.  So of course, United didn’t.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing victory against Zorya Luhansk in Thursday’s Europa League group game at Old Trafford.  But it didn’t need to be.  United just needed to win to avoid the possibility of a humiliating group stage exit in a competition they patently don’t give a toss about.  Which they they did – unconvincingly.

But even unconvincing United victories don’t come without accompanying dramas of soap opera proportions.  After endless debate, Mourinho had finally left Wayne Rooney out of the team last Saturday and was seemingly vindicated when United went on to record a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the reigning champions Leicester (yep, still sounds weird).  The team started without Rooney once more agasint Zorya, but with the score still 0-0, Mourinho brought him on in the 67th minute.  You can probably guess the rest.  Within seconds he had helped United to take the lead – in rather bizarre circumstances.  Young right-back Timothy Fosu-Mensah made a run down the wing before cutting back to Rooney, who scuffed his volley straight into the ground at the very moment the Zorya goalkeeper Oleksii Shevchenko lost his footing and fell.  Rooney’s mis-hit bounced straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the left post, who held off the defender and headed the ball into the unguarded net.  One goal for United, one assist for Wayne Rooney, three points for United, more endless debating about Rooney.

After three defeats on the trot, United have now won three in a row.  Winning is a habit and sometimes it’s better to keep winning badly than lose playing well.  Obviously in an ideal world United would play amazingly and collect silverware at will.  But the glory, glory days of Fergie and his exuberant, fleet footed fledglings are long gone.  Also gone are the days when managers had time to bed in.  Mourinho needs to keep accumulating the points and hope that the performances start coming with the confidence of winning.

United Turn A Corner Or Three

Correlation does not always imply causation.  Manchester United dropped Wayne Rooney for the visit of Premier League champions Leicester on Saturday and went on to thump them 4-1.  A clear case of cause and effect, or were Leicester simply terrible at defending for one awful 20 minute spell in the first half?  After all, this is the third time this season that Leicester have conceded four goals in a match.

The Rooney critics will rightly point to the increased fluidity, pace and movement in the team; the quicker interchange of passes; the increased space for Mata’s creativity to flourish; Pogba’s dominance in the first half, and Daley Blind’s deadly dead ball delivery.  Amazingly, three of United’s four goals came from corners.  United never score from corners, but then Rooney is the designated set piece taker.  In that respect, the belated change to Blind could not have come sooner!

However, perhaps even more significant was the decision to jettison the limited Marouane Fellaini and play Ander Herrera alongside Pogba in the deep lying Carrick role.  It freed Pogba to play much further forward, in a roaming role, that saw him hit a dipping 35 yard shot that was saved, contribute to Mata’s goal, score himself with a brilliant header, and play a delightful dink to Zlatan, whose swivelled volley over the bar would have been a top contender for goal of the season had it flown into the back of the net.  Of course, it’s the least United can expect for £89 million, but it was a timely reminder of why United forked out such a huge sum for the young Frenchman they offloaded for £88 million less four years ago.

One swallow does not a summer make though.  If correlation is to prove causation United will have to keep playing well without Rooney – or keep playing badly with him.  United play again on Thursday evening, at Old Trafford in the Europa League, and it is believed Rooney will start.  What happens if United play well and win?  How Jose Mourinho deals with solving the problem that is Wayne Rooney may well determine the success or failure of his tenure at Manchester United.

 

 

United Find Their Level

Cobblers.  No, not Manchester United’s current standard of football, though it really is that bad, but the first opponents they have been able to beat in four matches.  Northampton Town of League One.  That’s Division 3 in old school speak.  A win’s a win’s a win, though United should count themselves lucky they had the chance to face a helpfully lowly opponent to halt their miserable run of defeats.

Even then they couldn’t help nearly shooting themselves in the foot.  There has been a clarion call for Wayne Rooney to be dropped from the team.  He’s been condemned as a has-been – washed up, unfit and slower than a slug.  A third round in the EFL (aka League) Cup against a lower league team presented the ideal opportunity to show his detractors they were wrong.  Unfortunately, slicing a sitter wide from 5 yards early on only served to reinforce their criticisms.  He did subsequently get the ball into the net, only to be rightly flagged offside.  When things don’t go your way, they really don’t go your way.

Almost as loud has been the clamour for Michael Carrick to be reinstated in his deep lying midfield role.  Carrick is a strangely divisive figure in football.  Half think the United midfield doesn’t function without him; the others that he is the best midfielder in the world when he is given all the time and space in the world, but a calamitous liability when put under any kind of pressure.  Against the third division team he gave United impetus, drive and their opening goal.  An idiotic mistake by the Northampton keeper Adam Smith, who chose to pick up a back pass, lead to a free kick in the penalty area, which was blocked but ricocheted to Carrick, who smashed home to give United the lead.

At this point you might have expected United to stamp their authority on the match, but foot themselves shooting in the has been United’s forte recently, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the defence started getting themselves in a muddle because they had collectively forgotten to inform each other of their intention and kept going for the same ball.  It was inevitable that the comedy defending would lead to the equaliser.  When Daley Blind conceded a penalty after a clumsy foul on Sam Hopkins, the football headline writers must have been gleefully typing the funeral rites.

Thank goodness United have one genuinely world class outfield player in Marcus Rashford, who scares the pants off other teams because he has one frightening talent – pace.  It was his pass to Ander Herrera, who drove the ball into the corner from 20 yards, that put United ahead.  Seven minutes later, Herrera returned the favour when he hit a speculative punt upfield for Rashford to chase.  The ball should have been the keeper’s but with Rashford bearing down on him, the keeper completely misjudged the bounce, and in a millisecond, Rashford had the ball and was bearing down on the goal.  Finally, United had that winning feeling back again even if they needed a couple of gift horses from the Northampton goalkeeper.

That winning feeling might not last too long.  They face Premier League champions Leicester – yeah, still getting used to that one even after all these months – on Saturday.  And in case United have any idea that the League Cup might continue to offer a respite from their Premier League struggles, they have only gone and drawn Manchester City in the next round.  Yeah, it doesn’t rain, it pours.