Manchester United: a genuinely confusing side with all still to play for

Barney Ronay
‘Manchester United’s fine results in their past four Premier and Europa League matches have left this early José Mourinho team in a position of unusual jeopardy.’ Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

There is probably a meandering long-read thesis to be written on the different responses to the same match of football fans inside the ground and those who watch remotely. Wayne Rooney is routinely cheered at Old Trafford. Outside it he is a divisive figure among the diaspora, victim perhaps of unfavourable TV direction, short attention spans and boredom. Defeats are often met with cheers and warmth inside a ground, recognition of the effort expended. The same result, flashed up solely as a scoreline, will draw shrieks of betrayal at one digital remove.

In similar vein a gruelling late-season point at Manchester City on Thursday was met with sustained applause from the large group of United supporters. Naturally there will be overlaps and crossovers. But the away fans saw doggedness and fight in a match that was a disappointment to the TV spectator, with a combined total of 150 tackles, fouls, clearances and interceptions but little in the way of devil, dash and otherwise swanking across the stage in a velvet cape juggling a bone china dinner service.

It is a marker of this genuinely confusing United team that both have a pretty good point: hard to beat but hard to watch; Stodgy but still gurgling with vigour. packed with pace but oddly constipated. Whatever one’s take on matters of style and team building, United’s fine results in their past four Premier and Europa League matches have left this early José Mourinho team in a position of unusual jeopardy.

As so often, results will dictate the narrative from here. United are a short, well-placed run of wins and draws away from what would be an excellent first season for the new manager. Alternatively, lose in Europe, fade in the league at the last and the picture looks entirely different.

Comparing seasons with Chelsea, would a Europa League win, a League Cup and a place in the Champions League outrank a Premier League title and not having to bother in Europe at all? Probably not. In any case an FA Cup double for Antonio Conte would clinch the argument. Either way United are a few more Thursday night-style arm-wrestles away from transforming the season into by far the most successful in the post-Fergie era, the first to show real signs of another coherent team – any team – emerging from the flux.

Not that this is by any degree the finished article. It seems likely any tangible success this season will be used to leverage new signings and upgrade the squad. For all that, there are real pluses to be drawn already. First, and against type in the Premier League, United have defended with vigour and skill in their past three matches.

Much as it may disappoint those who like to talk about parking buses, defensive football is still football, just as excellent defence is still excellence. The performances of Eric Bailly have been hugely encouraging. Bailly is a proper stopper, an athlete, relentlessly committed obstacle who seems to take a genuine joy in pure defence, in reading movements, obstructing the flow, timing that perfect whites-of-the-eyes challenge, as he did at least twice in the second half at the Etihad. Perhaps the Premier League might have a cussed, gnarly, non-porous defensive presence in the Champions League next year.

Marcus Rashford had a good opening 10 minutes in Manchester but then faded after heavy treatment from City’s full-backs, who also defended well. Mourinho’s willingness to go with a lightning front three could still be an indicator of exhilarating times to come despite its almost complete failure.

In midfield the surprisingly angry Ander Hererra continued to look the part. And as ever Michael Carrick was the coolest player on the pitch, ambling about in the middle of all those bruising collisions with the air of a man casually rearranging his sock drawer. United will surely offer him a new contract.

Beyond this it has been fascinating to see a Mourinho-tinged team taking shape, even in outline. Three years ago Mourinho took Chelsea to Anfield and won 2-0. That game seemed to provide inspiration, a backbone, and ultimately a template for a title charge the next season. Perhaps the last two weeks, and above all the expertly enacted reeling-in of Chelsea, might provide something similar.

At which point reservations on issues of style and attacking intent begin to flood in. United were anonymous as an attacking force in the second half against City, full-backs pinned in their own half, midfield lacking in craft and presence on the ball. This is nothing new. There has been a leaden quality to United post-Ferguson. Through three successive managers and hundreds of millions of pounds spent they have been disappointing in the same way: cautious, stodgy, lacking in fluency, a team apparently playing under some debilitating weight.

Perhaps Mourinho is right and what is needed is some success to lubricate the parts and usher in a little more drive and swagger. This seemed to be the thinking behind signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a jump-start of instant big-game pizzazz, guaranteed goals, a way to get the motors turning again.

Still, changes will be required. A star striker is likely to arrive in the summer, possibly Antoine Griezmann. The promised clear-out will focus on midfield and defence, although one gets the feeling Marouane Fellaini, the footballing equivalent of the pair of muddy wellies Mourinho keeps in the boot of the car, might survive a cull. When it comes to dash, fun and lifting that peculiar weight, this feels like a finely poised moment. A run-in that falls the right way from here could be key.

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