The closer to the end of the season that we get without a definitive answer as to whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic will remain at United next season, the more the debate as to his value to the team will rage. It seems odd to be even thinking about the merits of our 28 goal striker moving on, but watching him amble around against Anderlecht last Thursday, slowing play down by taking extra touches and repeatedly giving the ball away, it’s not hard to see why some are in favour of him ambling all the way to California. The Swede has done an awful lot of good for the team this season, winning us some games we would otherwise not have won, but there have also been an awful lot of misses and his impact on the functioning of the attack as a whole has sometimes been evident. While Zlatan trotted around the pitch in Brussels, Marcus Rashford, ostensibly playing wide left but in a far freer role than he has previously been given, was a blur of perpetual, hyper-sonic motion, terrifying the Belgians with his pace and movement. The last week feel like a conscious statement from the youngster that he is the future and Zlatan, he hopes, is soon to be the past.
On Thursday, United were clearly superior to Anderlecht in every aspect of the game, except for the tricky final third bit. The midfield was controlled for most of the game and the home side looked wide open at the back. Aside from Jesse Lingard’s toe onto the post, the goal, excellently taken from a tight angle by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Paul Pogba’s second half shot when clean through, Mourinho’s team struggled to turn obvious superiority into clear goalscoring opportunities. The attack was too ponderous to exploit the Belgian’s defensive weaknesses and players too profligate to take advantage when chances presented themselves. It is the story of the season. It was another most un-Mourinho-like performance, all rather off the cuff, without an obvious shape or pattern of play. The Portuguese has always been the master at making substitutions that change games, but so often this season they have felt like self-sabotage. On came Fellaini late in the day in Belgium and the substitute watched Dendoncker wander past him and head home Anderlecht’s only shot on target in the whole game. 1-1 was a decent result, the manner of it was most certainly not.
Fast-forward to Sunday and a Premier League game with Chelsea that few thought United would win, particularly after they saw the teamsheet, with Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Martial and Luke Shaw omitted and what appeared to be a type of 5-3-2 formation with Captain Ashley Young (snigger) on the left, Valencia offering his usual work rate and power on the right and Marcus Rashford and, erm, Jesse Lingard up front. ‘Que?’, said the entire world simultaneously. And yet this was not Mourinho tossing the game off with Top Four in the Premier League seemingly out of reach, but a quite remarkable tactical plan, the sort of genius we associate with the Portuguese but have seen so little of this season. If United’s tactics this year have appeared minimal, in an attacking sense at least, this was a plan that had been micro-managed in the extreme. One wonders why this level of detail has not been apparent throughout the last nine months.
The plan worked from the off. Rashford and Lingard, bundles of pace and energy, pressed and harried the Chelsea back three and, when United had possession, played on the shoulder of their markers. Rashford isolated David Luiz, with terrific effect. Defensively, the plan was to cut off the supply line to and from Eden Hazard and to frustrate and rile Diego Costa. It worked to perfection. The game’s exceptional player, Ander Herrera, did not leave Hazard’s side all game, whilst Marcos Rojo drove Costa to despair. Rojo produced a performance of shithousery that was every bit as shithousy as the Argentine looks, whilst Herrera produced a performance of shithousery without looking anything but angelic. Old Trafford loved it.
Mourinho’s plan was only in its infancy when it was rewarded. Herrera accidentally on purpose cut out Matic’s pass with his hand (and later suggested he did not know if it had touched said hand, with a straight face and a look of pure innocence on his face), turned and threaded a beautiful pass through to Marcus Rashford, who outpaced David Luiz and clipped the ball past Begovic to give United the lead. Remarkably, that was the first goal the team have scored in the first twenty minutes of a home game this season. That strike, however, did not change the intensity of the performance and whilst clear cut chances were at a premium Chelsea did not get so much as a sniff of an opportunity. Indeed, they failed to complete a pass in United’s penalty area or have a shot on target (for the first time since 2007) all game.
One goal leads are somewhat dicey positions to be in for United, simply because they have been incapable this season of killing games off. See Anderlecht above. More often than not that lack of ruthlessness has been punished and one wonders if the second half may have played out differently, with crowd and players getting nervy, if another goal had not come. But it did (rah), and quickly, Ashley Young teeing up Ander Herrera’s deflected effort. MIND. BLOWN. As the second half wore on Chelsea gained territory and dominated possession, but so highly drilled were United, with Bailly, Rojo and Darmian (yes, you heard right) putting in exceptional performances. Antonio Conte, so often a bundle of energy on the touchline, spent the entire game motionless, rubbing his chin, thoroughly out-thought by Mourinho.
After Herrera, the best player on the pitch was Rashford, combining pace, strength, quality on the ball and excellent finishing. Pre-match Mourinho had suggested that Ibrahimovic had been rested because he was ‘tired’, but afterwards implied that maybe it had been a tactical decision. We’ll never know, but we can say with some confidence that had the Swede started in Rashford’s stead the match would not have panned out as it did and United, most likely, would not have won the game. Rashford’s movement and pace terrified Chelsea in a way that the static and ponderous Zlatan would not have, further muddying the waters regarding his future and whether his presence is to the benefit of the team. More and more fans are coming to the conclusion that whilst he should be lauded for his contribution this season a summer exit would be best for the United. With Mourinho of the opinion that more quality is needed in attacking areas to turn draws into wins, it looks likely that there will be at least one forward incoming regardless, but Rashford did enough on Sunday to suggest that he can lead the line if needed next season.
The win over Chelsea was undoubtedly United’s finest performance under Mourinho and gave the fans the best post-match euphoria they’ve felt in quite some time. A top class team was dismantled. But the victory provides more questions than answers. Where has that level of tactical attention to detail been all season? Where did a performance of such intensity come from when it has been lacking for much of the campaign? Will the penny have dropped with the manager that he may be better off without Zlatan? Did Zlatan see a future he may not like? Did Mourinho give this game more attention because of the opponent? Can it be replicated going forward? It was the sort of performance that Champions knock out again and again. Those of us old enough to remember the 1980s will be familiar with United’s ability to raise themselves for one-off games but struggle to replicate that standard on a regular basis. It is vital, therefore, that this match is not an exception but the new rule, particularly given a fiendish fixture list. Van Gaal’s United were exceptional against the bigger sides and both Arsenal and City were vanquished in the final two months of last season.
Some fans trumpeted the opinion that the performance showed that Mourinho is still a genius and yet a sample set of one does nothing of the sort. Genius would see a team playing like that with regularity and sitting atop the Premier League, and that is what we must be aiming for next season. The manager’s mojo may yet be as powerful as if ever was, but this game no more proves this than his predecessor’s finest hours hinted at his enduring powers. Regardless, the Chelsea victory should leave confidence within the squad sky high and can be a base from which they eventually elevate themselves to the standard we expect at one of the biggest and richest clubs in the world. Rejoice in a truly world class performance, but be careful not to get too carried away with its significance. If you must draw something meaningful from the game, then it should be that it reaffirmed our faith in the talent of Marcus Rashford, reminded us again why we love Ander Herrera so and suggested what many suspected, that there can be life after Zlatan.