If ‘philosophy’ was the buzzword for Manchester United under Louis van Gaal—’confidence’ is winning the race under Mourinho so far.
From the first whistle to the last, the result was never really in doubt; but it’s rather hard to find what has changed from last season, when in November, United drew 1-1 against Slaven Bilic’s West Ham despite peppering the goal 17 times and scoring once with a 5% conversion rate. On Sunday however, a very similar Manchester United side scored 4 in 22 attempts with a conversion rate of 18%.
Is it Lukaku that made the difference today?
Perhaps. Although Lukaku scored one goal more than Zlatan did in the corresponding fixture last season, their respective heat maps charting player movement and the number of touches are almost inseparable. In fact, the Belgian had 2 fewer touches on Sunday in a performance that was worthy enough of a £75-million man making his debut in front of a packed and boisterous Old Trafford.
He scored the second goal—a fine header off a well placed set-piece—at a time when the home side needed one to breathe easy and then United switched gears. Confidence, as Mourinho mentioned about 12 times in his post match interviews, seemed to take center-stage.
Could it be Nemanja Matic?
Again, it is hard to fully attribute the result to the 29-year old former Chelsea midfielder who was exceptionally efficient in the middle of the park – controlling the game and in Romelu Lukaku’s words post-match, ‘made them tick’. He was awarded Man-of-the-Match and he truly was the best player on the pitch—winning 4 aerial duels and 2 tackles, completing 86% of his passes, and remarkably for a player whose movement with the ball is questionable, he completed 7 out of 7 dribbles. Great numbers.
More importantly and also quite unsurprisingly, Paul Pogba seemed to particularly enjoy playing with a true defensive midfielder in Matic on Sunday.
In a 4-2-3-1, where the Frenchman would otherwise have been tasked with defensive duties that often stifled his natural instincts to create chances and express himself similar to the way he is outside of football, Pogba flourished and it was clear that he was fully ‘confident’ in the ability of Matic to cover his ground, in a way he never was with Ander Herrera alongside him.
Ander Herrera, as tenacious as he is, is often one bad touch away from ‘getting caught of position’ which occasionally made Pogba’s positioning even more vulnerable in midfield whenever the two played alongside each other, like they did in the same fixture last season, as a double pivot. If opening day performances are anything to go by, that may never be the case whenever Pogba is partnered with the player that Mourinho knows and trusts more than most—to play the anchor role in the middle.
United have a variety of options across the front four at their disposal but that was there last season too. Rashford, a player whose overall development has been staggering in the last 12 months, was positive, took men on and could have joined the party if his adventurous attempt had curled a touch more than it did before hitting the inside of the post and rolling dangerously close to the goal-line.
Anthony Martial needed less time to make his mark on the game when his calculative serial killer look combined with the first touch of an artist produced the third goal that killed the contest. Maybe it was Mkhitaryan who made the true difference—whose ‘confidence’ has seen an exponential growth in the last few months, since the Armenian has been a regular fixture in the side.
Having scored one of the two goals in the Europa League final following his impressive form in the second half of last season, Mkhitaryan is unmistakably United’s chief playmaker. He created 6 chances on the day—only one fewer than the whole of West Ham managed—including two assists. He ran West Ham ragged in the middle, quickened the tempo in the final third and rarely lost the ball, with a pass accuracy of 90%.
It was probably this, that United missed the other night and thankfully, they did not on Sunday.