For four years now Manchester United have grappled with an identity problem. Are they still a buccaneering ‘quick’ team or did all that end when Sir Alex Ferguson retired? Marcus Rashford’s return to form points to a comeback for speedy attacking.
Some will call this a false dichotomy. Consider the past week. Against Chelsea last Sunday, United, who travel to Burnley on Sunday, employed a zesty, high-tempo attacking style, with Rashford and Jesse Lingard pushed up against Antonio Conte’s back three, hunting for opportunities. But when the more stately Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the dominant attacker, United’s play slows to a more chess-like pace.
Ibrahimovic’s injury may remove this dilemma for now. But the question of what a Manchester United team should look like will remain, because Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby established deep roots for the kind of game the likes of Rashford and Lingard can play. And Antoine Griezmann, too, which is why Atlético Madrid’s star man is the right transfer target.
Most of the great United sides were synonymous with pace. Ferguson’s first dominant team had Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis burning up the flanks.Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona worked at a more sedate creative rhythm, but there was always the sense of United racing up the pitch, as there was with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in his youth.
Ferguson’s intention was always to drive the opposition back, to demoralise and intimidate them, especially at Old Trafford. The speed came in many forms, from Denis Irwin at left-back to Giggs and a young David Beckham on the wings. But there was always that dynamism. Only in Champions League ties against Europe’s biggest names did Ferguson embrace containment. Tally-ho cannot always be the cry.
Nor have United only ever bought ‘quicks.’ In 2008 Ferguson paid £30.75 million for Dimitar Berbatov because he wanted a “different” kind of striker: a thinker and lock-picker. Cerebral Teddy Sheringham, meanwhile, is indelibly associated with the 1999 Treble. Nor was Ruud van Nistelrooy an express train. So Ibrahimovic is true to that template of slower, calculating, but still lethal, United strikers.
But if you could imagine a United duo to scare teams next season, it would be Rashford and Griezmann – if they can get him
The trouble is, these judgments ignore the modern need to excite. Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, United’s joie de vivre disappeared. Old Trafford went flat. Mourinho is no fan of circus football. The biggest question in his head is always: how can I win? And with the game the way it is, with speed and thrust to the fore, he must want a squad that allows him to compete with clubs ahead of him in the Premier League.
Rooney’s disappearance from the first-team partly expresses the slowing of his movements, in thought and body. Ibrahimovic, a magnificent athlete who has carried the team through much of this campaign, may be remembered as a transitional figure: an anchor for Mourinho in his first season. With Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a purposeful, decisive attacking midfielder, Mourinho already has two players to quicken United’s heartbeat, to allow them to ‘go after’ teams.
Single styles of play are anathema to Mourinho. He distrusts “philosophies”. Without youth, speed and enterprise, though, his ability to win is restricted to tactical grappling and selective strikes, which are alien to the United tradition. Paul Pogba, meanwhile, has added no velocity to attacks.
There is nothing wrong with boiling an image of a football club down to a few defining principles. With United, it is more Rashford than Ibrahimovic, however dependable ‘Zlatan’ has been. Ideally you would have both. But if you could imagine a United duo to scare teams next season, it would be Rashford and Griezmann – if they can get him.
This is less about tradition and self-image, perhaps, than modern reality. For too much of the last four years, United have been lumpy, ponderous. Time to leave that behind.
Time for Swansea to up the pace
Fernando Llorente is meant to be Swansea’s saviour, but he is not racing in that direction. Before the Swans face Stoke, Paul Clement, their manager, was forced to defend his striker against numbers that showed he sprinted only 20 metres in the defeat at Watford.
“We looked at the stats, and believe it or not that’s 20 metres more than he [Llorente] has done in other games,” Clement said. “At Liverpool [in January] he sprinted zero metres.”
This humorous sounding exchange cannot conceal the reality that Swansea have settled back into their old relegation form after Clement’s bright start of five wins from eight. Since then they have taken one point from six league fixtures, which points to a problem with the squad, not the manager.
“The players have not responded particularly well over last five or six games when the pressure has been there,” Clement says.
League Cup winners in 2013, Swansea have lurched from ‘model club’ to cautionary tale. Their lowest finishing position in five seasons in the Premier League is 12th. But they had all better get a move on; not just Llorente.
Ugo's winning way plain to see in just five minutes
The death of Ugo Ehiogu from cardiac arrest at 44 is impossible to square with the health and vigour he radiated. So many of his communications on Twitter were about exercise and nutrition. He had a healthy body and a kind nature. Within five minutes in his company you could see why everyone liked him.
For him to go so young, and apparently in such good condition, can only reinforce the sheer randomness of serious illness, the fragility of life.
We look after ourselves for all sorts of reasons. One is to ward off health calamities. But the hidden dangers are always there. Another reason to not waste a day.
But it is about him, not us. A good man has lost his life.