By Iwan Lehnert
Something of a mixed week for Manchester United, so let’s start with the low points.
There’s no good time or good way to get injured. You might decide that there’s more honour in pulling your hamstring in an innocuous-looking challenge in a Champions League game than due to the presence of an obnoxious, infected pimple, but the end result is the same; you’re not playing for your team, and Paul Pogba will likely be missing for United until mid-October, at least. And that, is bad news.
It’s a blow for Jose Mourinho and United, no doubt about it. Pogba has been at the heart of his team’s solid start to this league season, and whilst his manager was quick to point to the strength of his squad as a reason to avoid being too downbeat, this is a tricky time to be losing a player of Pogba’s quality and presence. For one thing, that’s a whole lot of creativity taken out of central midfield in one go, with a steady stream of fixtures on the horizon, and given how United’s confident start to last season buckled at a similar point, you could be forgiven for being somewhat concerned with the ramifications of this injury. Not that fate cares one jot about these things, but there was something especially disappointing to see Pogba leaving the action having been given the armband on Tuesday. Whether that was a clever piece of management from Mourinho after the remarkable levels of waffle that pundits have sent his way this week alone is unclear, but I wouldn’t put it past him.
Lord knows why we’re even worried, though. Not with King Marouane about.
Before we get on to him, though, a quick word on Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Stoke. Mourinho did United’s opponents something of a disservice by suggesting that only one team wanted to win during the final period of the game, considering that the Potters had caused his side plenty of problems during those 90 minutes; perhaps he was just sore about being told to f**k off by Mark Hughes. Still, no complaints. United’s defence were frequently flimsy, and fluency was in short supply. Even Romelu Lukaku, who has been deadlier than a really deadly thing so far this season needed two attempts to slam United’s most presentable chance home, and with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones having an erratic afternoon, it’s probably safest to suggest that it was simply an off day. The only concern is that without Pogba, this sort of laboured performance doesn’t become more frequent.
Tuesday’s return to Champions League football was far more fun, perhaps predictably. Basel have given English opposition some tricky tests over the years, but the eternal Swiss champions aren’t wup to the same calibre as the team of days past. In fairness, any of the problems that Raphaël Wicky’s side created came as a result of United’s sloppiness, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was almost certainly one of the players that Mourinho had in mind when he pointedly criticised his team’s ‘PlayStation football’ after the break.
Having said that, there’s definitely a certain amount of joy in watching United dispatch opponents that’s been missing from the last few years. Romelu Lukaku’s umpteenth strike since his summer move from Everton was celebrated by a man that is clearly loving his work of late; his enjoyment is infectious and Marcus Rashford’s late third continued a stunning trend of scoring in his debut in essentially every footballing competition that has ever been invented. Kid done good.
I can’t go any further without mentioning Marouane Fellaini, though. The Belgian jumped into Tuesday night’s game and offered arguably his most skillful performance in a red shirt in his 4 years at the club. The bar for that might have been a little low, because rarely do the words ‘Fellaini’ and ‘skill’ meet, but he was excellent. He worked hard off the ball, used it effectively and imaginatively when he did have it, and caused problems for Basel for most of the evening. His goal, as typically a Fellaini finish as you’ll ever see, also broke open a game which United hadn’t gotten hold of, too. The challenge has always been keeping form of this kind going, as the Belgian has never been far away from a veritable stinker. Given how happy he appears to be under Mourinho’s guidance, maybe now’s the time to prove his worth on a more consistent basis.
Course, failing that, there’s always Ander Herrera.
Everton are next on the list, fresh from a humbling at Atalanta in the Europa League and without a win in five. Whilst Wayne Rooney will undoubtedly be dying to make a mark on his first return to Old Trafford since he swapped back to blue this summer, his new/old club’s has arguably come at a useful time for United. Ronald Koeman’s side haven’t registered a goal in their last three games, and have been beaten quite easily in both games since the last international break. Stranger things have happened than the Toffees suddenly pulling a performance out of their collective backsides on Sunday afternoon, but Mourinho will surely demand a ruthless focus from his charges after last weekend’s draw.