With Manchester United having already played so many more games than their nearest rivals – something that’s only going to be exacerbated as they’re the only top six English team left in Europe, it was always going to be integral for their squad players to step up and be counted at some point towards the end of the season.
For a while, though, Jose Mourinho wasn’t too interested in giving them their chance. With Manchester United down in sixth place for so long, and challenging in the FA Cup, EFL Cup, and Europa League, Mourinho seemed intent on repeatedly playing his strongest side. Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved undroppable, while Paul Pogba was given plenty of time to try and prove his worth, meaning that the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard were forced to play bit part roles, and mostly out of position too.
To be fair to Mourinho, after seeing his side struggle to just 2 wins in 11 Premier League matches between September and December, it was understandable that he repeatedly stuck with a side he felt comfortable with. United’s 18 games unbeaten run since their shellacking at Chelsea on October 23 has justified this selection, too.
But with Paul Pogba injured and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended for the match against Middlesbrough Jose Mourinho had no choice but to turn to his alternatives for the game. He hardly gave them a boost of confidence, though, when after United’s progress against Rostov on Thursday he predicted that they would probably “lose the game on Sunday.”
Mourinho turned to Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford as his number ten and number nine, respectively, and they were able to turn their manager’s prophecy into a fallacy with direct, nimble, and swift combination play that highlighted why they should be more forthright in Mourinho’s mind.
The only negative was Rashford’s inability to finish as he spurned two glorious chances, which fresh off the heels of his missed one on one against Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter final, suggests that he’s lost confidence in his scoring ability. That’s a view point that is reinforced with his return of just 7 goals in 38 games this season.
While these openings were only forced open by Rashford’s ingenuity and speed, these positives immediately fade into the background when he’s unable to put the ball in the back of the net. Considering his age, the fact that he’s creating the opportunities, and his all round tirelessness and contribution it’s still way too early to suggest he’s more a Federico Macheda than an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. However, with Ibrahimovic out for only one more game he needs to strike at home to West Bromwich Albion after the International break to remind the United faithful of his prowess.
It was Lingard that really shone, though. Of course his stunning strike into the top corner after spearheading a United counter-attack for forty yards was the highlight, but he was also always looking to get on the ball, driving at the Middlesbrough defence, and didn’t look out of place in the number 10 slot. The fact that the opposition are down in 19th place and managerless helped, but lest we forget this is the fifth best defence in the league that he excelled against.
Lingard and the rest of the Manchester United team were waylaid by Jose Mourinho’s needlessly over defensive tactics as the game wore on, though, especially once Boro had jimmied a goal home after being invited to pile pressure on. But United held out, deserved their victory for their first half endeavours, while Mourinho will take comfort in the fact that Lingard, Rashford, the dependable Ashley Young, and efficient if unwieldy Marouane Fellaini proved that they can be turned to during United’s preposterously hectic climax.