Four goals scored, none conceded and 3 more points. Again.
It’s been as good a start for Manchester United as they have had in not just one year, or five or even fifty—this is the first time the Red Devils have scored eight Premier League/top flight goals or more in the first two games in about 110 years. So it’s rather safe to assume that there is something special brewing within this side. Mourinho would call it confidence. But clearer signs will be observed in the coming weeks when the international break will inevitably snap some or all of the momentum and confidence that has been gained, but it has been so very good for Mourinho in his second season at a new club, so far. Again.
As always, I would like to shed some light on some observations that made sense to me and should you disagree, please do it in the comments below.
1. Mourinho is right to remain grounded
As Martial scored his fourth and the final goal of the game—the third in a devastating four-minute spell as United racked up the numbers—the camera panned towards an inert Mourinho nodding his head approving of the result, even failing to notice one of his assistants trying to congratulate him in a celebratory manner.
He looked relaxed yet oddly fierce, more than he has ever been since taking over the reins at Old Trafford. It’s almost as if he was going ‘I told you so’ at anyone who would listen. His post-match interview was even more intriguing (if that was possible) as he almost challenged his side to rise up to a scenario they have not faced in these opening two games and may very well do, in the coming weeks and months.
“It has not happened so far but going a goal behind will be a different challenge and I want to see how these players try to change a result. Let’s see how we are when we are in difficulties, when we need the last minutes to win matches. Of course I am happy with the way we have started the season. But I don’t forget that we started last season with six points from our first two matches and still finished sixth.”
And he is right. Mourinho, the master handler of situations like these, is far too shrewd to give anything away at this stage and for the second time in two weeks has he mentioned the fact that they had a similar start to the campaign last year, only to end up coming sixth in a six-horse race.
If early results could be representative of the whole campaign, United would have to fail catastrophically to finish outside of top four.
2. Lukaku is one of the most intelligent footballers in the Premier League
24-year old Romelu Lukaku scored his third goal of the season—and the second of the match, essentially sealing the outcome and three points for good. It was the usual dink-it-over-the-diving-goalie type of finish and the kind of goal that Lukaku would score in his sleep. But bizarrely, what went unnoticed is how the Belgian was key to the move by sneaking into the no man’s land inside the opposition box, for Mkhitaryan to thread the ball to him unmarked.
It was not his ‘towering physique’ or ‘brute force’ which are so often mentioned almost to the point of derision that enabled United get that vital second goal; it was Lukaku’s in-game intelligence and spatial awareness, precisely what the 24-year old is perceived to be lacking, by large sections of popular football media.
Whether this particular angle of coverage pertaining to Lukaku and a few others is consciously condescending or not is an important discussion to be had more voraciously. But United fans should worry not because in Romelu Lukaku, they have in their ranks one of the most dedicated and intelligent goalscorers in the Premier League, fast approaching his absolute prime.
3. Competition for places is as intense as it should be…at last
This is arguably the biggest positive in this current squad and Mourinho is facing more difficult problems, in a good way, with respect to team selection than his two immediate predecessors and he is handling it all expertly well. The starting eleven is much more balanced now—which has made the bench stronger than it has been in the last five years and United just look well equipped in most areas of the pitch after years of misfiring signings in the transfer market.
On Saturday, United started the same XI in consecutive games for the first time since last August and Mourinho’s preference towards small squads with predictable starting elevens is well documented.
But the fact that Mourinho could now afford the luxury of bringing on key players in previous seasons, like Ander Herrera to see out games, Anthony Martial—the top scorer in 15/16 with 17 goals in all competitions in his debut campaign—to give him more minutes on the pitch, is encouraging to say the least. Chris Smalling, who was voted Player of the Year by his teammates in the same season, has yet to make an appearance in 2017/18 despite being fully fit and so is former Benfica defender Victor Lindelof, one of the three new names recruited this Summer.
Competition for places is as healthy as it is intense, at long last.