By Richard Cann
Absence, it is claimed, makes the heart grow fonder. I feel that this is a something of a generalisation. I see the in-laws as little as possible and, frankly, wish the gaps between visits could be even longer. Also, in football, absence, rather than making the heart grow fonder, can warp your mind into believing that an AWOL/injured/incarcerated footballer is not just exactly what your team needs to master the universe, but is also far far better than your own eyes told you he was before his disappearance. Hello Shinji Kagawa, the greatest and most chronically misused footballer in the the world when not playing for Manchester United and the most anonymous when actually required to kick a ball around in a red shirt, even in his ‘best’ position. Absence, I would suggest, is a very mixed bag, although I appreciate that a great saying that does not make.
Still, it would not be fair to suggest that there is no evidence in support of its accuracy. Take subject one, Eric Bertrand Bailly, the Ivorian centre back that few of us had ever heard of, let alone seen in the flesh before Mourinho threw thirty large at Villarreal and brought him to Old Trafford. Having played only 46 top-flight games in his life we had no clue if he’d be ready to start games for United. Hell, even Jose admitted that he didn’t have a clue. But then he played and we all melted into a puddle of mutual admiration. Here was a centre back who combined pace, strength and agility with calmness on the ball and just the slightest hint of psychosis. He may have a kind face, but Eric will happily drop kick a forward into the sea. What a glorious combination. We fell in love, or at least as much love as was left to give when emotional connections, albeit unrequited, have already been made with Dave, Juan and Ander.
And then Eric got injured at Chelsea and we were sad. Initial reports suggested it was bad. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite bad enough, and he recovered in time to go to the African Nations with Ivory Coast. Fortunately his teammates were sh*te and he was soon home and returned to the lineup at Leicester. And whilst we had missed him we had also forgotten quite how damned smooth at football the man is. Against Watford on Saturday Bailly made the whole thing look rather easy. Christ, he even made Chris Smalling look better. His aura could have wafted to Daley Blind too, but he was just too far outside Eric’s aura of influence. But no matter. Bailly is back, and he’s just as wonderful as we all remembered he was. In fact, having to watch Smalling pray that the ground would swallow him up every time he received the ball only heightened our yearning for Bailly’s return. My heart definitely grew fonder.
Although the periods without seeing his expressionless face have been shorter than Bailly’s absence, the time that Anthony Martial has been persona non grata has been equally difficult to compute. Here was our best outfield player from last season, by a very significant distance indeed, and Mourinho seemed to have considerable beef with him. Perhaps he still does. We’ll know on Thursday. We know not why. Our fondness only grows every time he is absent and we are faced with another 90 minutes of Marcus Rashford on the left wing or, ugh, Jesse Lingard. At times it has felt like Jose has been toying with poor Anthony’s emotions and, by extension, ours too. Imagine struggling to break down a resolute Hull City at home and opting to leave yer man on the bench. Sickening. But stubbornness is finite and pragmatism often wins the day. In this case the day was won on Saturday, thirteen days and three matches after the manager said Martial would play if he excelled against Wigan in the FA Cup, which he did. Better late than never, I suppose.
So finally, against Watford, we got to see the Three Musketeers together in action. Juan and Henrikh had fine games, but the star of the show was young Anthony, who tore at the hapless Watford right back and left him prostrate on the ground, lying in a pool of his own bodily fluids, whimpering for his mummy. It is no surprise to me that with Martial restored and the squad’s best front four selected United overcame their annoying habit of meandering through first halves at home, essentially reducing most games to an increasingly fraught forty-five minute shootout. After a quiet first twenty minutes the pressure was cranked up and Martial’s direct running began to scare the heebie-jeebies out of the visitors’ defenders. With Mata and Mkhitaryan also excelling it was frustrating that the halftime lead was only a single goal, after Martial crossed for Juan to side-foot home. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.
Walter Mazzari made a tactical change of personnel and shape at half time and for a period it worked a treat, but as the game wore on and his side chased an equaliser the conditions became increasingly ideal for a pacy winger to punish Watford on the counter-attack. Fortunately we had one on the pitch, and it was he, from Zlatan’s pass, who drove into the inside-right channel, checked inside and cleverly side-footed home to make the game safe. So strange is the relationship between Martial and Mourinho that even a performance of such excellence is not guaranteed to see the Frenchman retain his place in the team for the games against St. Etienne and Blackburn. If he is absent our yearning for him will surely grow some more, United’s attack will be less potent and the ‘thou must not criticise your manager lest you be told to go and support Chelsea’ superfans will be out in force to leap on anyone on social media who dares to question the decision. Well now, my brothers in constructive criticism, we have Watford, conclusive proof that Anthony Martial is to wide play what Eric Bailly is to defending and every time he is absent our hearts will grow fonder, because he’s objectively shit-hot. So there. In yo face doubters.
The Watford game was a triumph for almost everyone on the pitch. Dave saved the one worthwhile shot he faced, Antonio Valencia burned up and down the right flank without ever looking tired and in midfield Ander Herrera won ALL of the tackles. All of them. He tackled everyone. Paul Pogba did his usual ting, Juan floated about doing pretty things and scoring and Mkhitaryan scurried from pillar to post making it look as if the rest of the world was moving in slow motion. Indeed, only really Zlatan and Daley Blind were below par. A left back is a must for the summer, whilst Ibrahimovic’s off-day further highlighted the need for Martial’s inclusion. When the Swede has struggled there have not been enough goals from elsewhere in the team. The Frenchman adds a significant goalscoring threat and often draws defenders away from teammates.
Speaking of left backs, post-match Mourinho was asked about Luke Shaw. Y’know, the lad who was supposed to be the England left back for the next fifteen years, but who suffered an appalling injury, started the season badly, got publicly rinsed by the manager and has disappeared, except for a brief and unconvincing performance against Wigan. Remember? Louis Van Gaal thought he was fat and Twitter decided that his arse was too big. Anyway, Jose said that he is ‘working well’ and ‘doesn’t have any problem’ (which presumably means an injury). He just doesn’t like him much then, which is a manager’s prerogative I guess. Unlike Martial, Shaw’s appearances have been decidedly sub-par and it is easier to make a case for his absence simply being because he hasn’t been good enough, but it is hard not to feel sorry for the player, whose start to last season was so promising before his leg was essentially snapped in two. Miguel Delaney told me last week on the Pod that whilst Mourinho has not given up on Shaw, he would not be averse to selling him either. Bad times.
Going forward the games now come thick and fast, which is ace. A week is way too long a wait between matches. For a few brief hours United were no longer 6th in the Premier League (yay) , but then they were again (boo) and likely will be for some time (ffs). With the League Cup final leading to the postponement of the Derby, others in the top six will have played again before Mourinho’s boys face Bournemouth at Old Trafford on the 4th March. This is now a critical period of the season as a soft run of league games ends in mid-April with the visit of Chelsea. In that final month United face Conte’s team at home and Arsenal, City and Spurs away and it is likely that we will need a decent points cushion coming into those games. Jose seems unable to field significantly weakened teams in any competition and it is likely that key players will be expected to play twice a week for the next few months, presuming that St. Etienne are overcome. That is no given and the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard is a raucous and intimidating venue to visit as Lyon and Memphis Depay recently discovered. With a visit to Blackburn next weekend in the FA Cup, United are still alive on four fronts and it promises to be an exciting month. Unbeaten in 16 in the Premier League and with only one defeat in 22 in all competitions, the signs are promising. With Eric Bailly back and Anthony Martial potentially back in the fold the chances of success have increased significantly. Ziiiiiinnggggg.