On a weekend in which many top teams failed to impress, Manchester United put in a comprehensive performance to earn top spot after week one of the 2017-18 Premier League season. Jose Mourinho’s side thrashed West Ham 4-0 at Old Trafford in the kind of showing that was lacking all too often last season, particularly at home. Here’s a look at what we learned from United’s standout victory:
Mourinho knows his team
This may seem obvious, but many times last year it seemed the United manager did not not know his players on or off the field. His team selection and tactics came in under scrutiny, and his open criticism of players, notably Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, was harsh and detrimental.
Mourinho’s team selection for the opener was perhaps surprising but highly effective. Against a team like West Ham, with size and strength to spare, one might have thought United would field a team of a similar makeup. But Mourinho opted for the creativity of Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Juan Mata, supported by Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, over the steel of Marouane Fellaini or Ander Herrera.
The Portuguese got his tactics spot on as well. Starting with a 4-2-3-1, rather than a 4-3-3, that left Paul Pogba alongside Nemanja Matic in a midfield two may have led to the Frenchman playing too deep to influence attacking play, a common occurrence in the last campaign. However, Matic so thoroughly controlled the space in front of the United back four that Pogba was free to move forward and take advantage of the interplay of Rashford, Mkhitaryan, and Mata. United’s dominance of the midfield was such that Matic was himself regularly able to join the attack.
Mourinho’s judicious use of his bench also deserves credit. Though all three substitutions came late in the second half after United looked likely to see the game out, bringing on Fellaini, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard was no mere attempt to wind down the clock. All three will play significant roles in United’s season, whether in challenging for the Premier League title or competing in domestic or international cup competitions. Bringing on Martial, who opened his account for the year, will no doubt give confidence to the player the club will need at his best this campaign.
Lukaku and Matic belong at United
Upon arrival there may have been fewer questions about Matic than Lukaku, but any player arriving at a club with the stature of Manchester United must prove himself anew in the club colors. While one game does not make a club legend, Lukaku’s brace and Matic’s assured performance in midfield augur well for their careers in red.
In addition to his two goals, Lukaku consistently showed the pace and power that made him such a threat at Everton, and his ability to hold up the play and link with players running beyond him exemplified his growth as a center forward. Matic turned in the kind of performance he became known for at Chelsea, patrolling the area in front of the back four and breaking up play. His anticipation led directly to Lukaku’s opening goal, and the Serbian was an ever-ready outlet for United’s forward players.
Expecting two goals a game from Lukaku is, of course, outlandish. Active influence on the attack every week is not too much to ask. The side goes as he goes. Lukaku has made a brilliant start to his life in Manchester. He must press on. Matic must also maintain his performance level as United come up against quality sides. Against the top sides of the league, he will no doubt be limited to the unglamorous but essential work of the midfield.
United primed for a title challenge
On a weekend that saw many of their closest rivals struggle, United made the boldest statement of championship intent. It was not merely the four goals and clean sheet that showed the Red Devils are a different side this year. That they were able to win so emphatically against a club willing to defend deeply made their performance all the more impressive. Failure to prevail in matches they thoroughly dominated was a hallmark of last season’s United.
Mourinho’s choice of team and formation indicated his side’s ability to adapt to their opposition. A midfield two may prove insufficient against the best sides of the league, necessitating the inclusion of Herrera and/or Fellaini. However, in matches requiring patience and incisive passing, United have the players to unlock stubborn defenses. Depth of squad and tactical flexibility will be key to United’s season.
With their new front man off the mark, a bolstered midfield, and a palpable feeling of excitement around the club, the record champions appear poised to better their disappointing showing last season. Certainly title talk is laughably premature, but United look a side ready to compete.