Jose Mourinho’s team selection was heavily criticised before Sunday’s game at Swansea but dissent reduced as Manchester United won 3-1 against the poorest team they have faced so far this season. Victory was needed, as were the fine goals scored by a side that had managed only 13 in their previous 10 Premier League games.
For once, United looked the sum of their individual parts and the biggest names played well. Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney were all in need of a good performance and they delivered.
Pogba looks happier running from deep than playing further upfield and he floated around with more purpose, with a superb 15th-minute goal the highlight of his display. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, netted twice and Rooney was involved in all three goals. So much was expected of that veteran forward pairing in August; it is about time it delivered.
Michael Carrick was the other standout performer and was rightly feted in song by the 2,700 travelling fans. United have won all five of the games he’s started this season, scoring 13 goals in the process. The 35-year-old is not a match winner, but he’ll help stop the team losing and protected a defence that included Phil Jones, who started for the first time since January.
Jones was one of several players, who didn’t see eye to eye with Louis van Gaal’s vision of him as a player, another who was asked to change the way he played. Now he’s being asked to change it back. These things take time.
Sunday also saw Mourinho again choose to criticize some of his players, just as he did in Istanbul three days earlier. A manager who is publicly critical takes risks and, as he saw at Chelsea last season, it helps when the players are onside.
Before Sunday’s game, Mourinho said: “[Chris] Smalling doesn’t feel that he can play 100 percent with his pain. [Luke] Shaw told me this morning that he was not able to play.” Afterwards, the United manager added: “For the team, you have to do anything.”
When there’s discord, fans have their own interpretation about what is happening and are often happy to blame players, especially ones they consider to be underperforming, but there are two sides to every story.
It would be a shame if Shaw and Anthony Martial, two talented young footballers who have had cross words with Mourinho this season, were not to fulfil their potential at United. As for Memphis Depay, he’ll likely find the minutes he needs away from Old Trafford.
Mourinho also said: “It is not just the players, but the people that surround the players.” A manager being concerned about what his team get up to away from work is nothing new. One of the advantages Sir Alex Ferguson had was that, over time, he built up a network of contacts around Manchester to tip him off when a player was misbehaving.
Social media can help a new manager, because players can’t go anywhere without having their picture taken, but players don’t only take their lead from fearing the wrath of their boss, but also from senior, local players who know the lie of the land in Manchester.
Several years ago, one young midfielder was showing off pictures when Ryan Giggs asked him how many of the people he’d been out with knew him before he made United’s first team. The player answered “none” and Giggs didn’t have to say anything else. Perhaps the new friends weren’t so special, after all.
Local knowledge is vital and experienced players who know Manchester can advise of whom, and where, to steer clear. Young, rich men in an unknown city need that guidance, especially because almost of all the local boys have gone from United’s dressing room.
After years of stability, there have been 27 senior departures in six transfer windows, with an influx of 17 new players. The dressing room hierarchy, for so long established and only gradually evolving, is in a state of flux not helped by managerial instability. And what if some of the remaining senior players aren’t always shining role models, either?
The club’s attitude to what players do in their spare time is to trust them. They’ve risen as high as Manchester United, usually for the reason that they’ve been able to decipher what is and is not positive for their career. Most footballers are not stupid, either. Marcus Rashford, for example, is a streetwise 19-year-old and grew up in Manchester, but he has stopped going out after one evening became a flurry of selfies.
There are club guidelines, from what players post on social media to when they can socialise, but United don’t want to operate a nanny state. For most players it was never an issue. Nemanja Vidic, for example, was a family man who preferred a walk in the Peak District to a pint in the Peveril of the Peak pub.
He didn’t need advice, whereas Anderson drove his colleagues mad because they could see he was talented and yet refused to be as dedicated as he could have been with his diet. In the end, they gave up on him.
Thirty years ago, Ferguson got to grips with a drinking culture that he felt was affecting the dressing room. Today, players barely take alcohol but there are other distractions and influences. That’s for Mourinho to control, though it’s hard because, while Ferguson ruled with fear, management styles have changed and not every player responds to a rant.
Mourinho is confident that, in time, he’ll get the players he wants playing the way he wants and attract the same level of adoration that he has had in the past. He’ll need to do more than beating a wretched Swansea side and United are still only sixth.
But the team have four straight home games after the international break, beginning with Arsenal and his old rival Arsene Wenger, in which they can find the form that has eluded them since the start of the season.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.