SWANSEA, Wales — Three thoughts from Manchester United’s 4-0 win vs. Swansea City.
1. United sweep Swans aside
Two games, six points, eight goals scored, none conceded. Manchester United’s performance against Swansea City perhaps did not quite match the 4-0 scoreline, but Jose Mourinho’s side have started the season in clinical style. In two games, they have now reached 15 percent of their goals tally from last term. Not bad at all.
Goals from Eric Bailly and Romelu Lukaku, a fabulous Paul Pogba dink and a swept finish by substitute Anthony Martial did the job in Wales, and while there were spells in the second half when a better opponent might have punished them, you can’t expect a great deal more from them.
The first half was nothing to get excited about. Aside from a Jordan Ayew effort that was either a highly ingenious attempt to catch David De Gea out at his near-post or a mishit cross, plus a Phil Jones header (that actually came more off his shoulder) which hit the bar, the opening 20 minutes was conducted at arm’s length. United had most of the possession but had trouble breaking down a Swansea side who were nominally playing 3-5-2, but in practice had five defenders with debutant Roque Mesa sitting in front of them.
Marcus Rashford was the most prominent figure in the first half. The young forward wasn’t a popular figure at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea’s fans more or less constantly booing him for diving to win a penalty against them last season. All to be expected, but Rashford seemed to take this as a personal challenge, looking desperate to score in order to prove a point, shooting from every angle possible regardless of his other options. Constant complaints about perceived fouls and miscellaneous other slights were unlikely to thaw relations.
Pogba was also perhaps a touch lucky to escape a red card. Having already been booked a few minutes earlier, the French midfielder fouled Martin Olsson as the Swansea wing-back was clearing the ball: it wasn’t a terrible or dangerous foul, but the sort of challenge that probably would have resulted in a yellow card if the player hadn’t already been booked. This time a stern lecture was deemed sufficient.
Just before the break, United took the lead. Pogba was left unmarked from a Daley Blind cross, his header was brilliantly tipped onto the bar then the goalline by Lukasz Fabianski, but the goalkeeper couldn’t recover in time to prevent Bailly from stabbing his first United goal home. It wasn’t Fabianski’s fault, though: Federico Fernandez allowed the Ivorian to muscle his way in front of him, and not only that, but he appeared to be telling at his keeper to claim the ball himself. A tough ask, considering Fabianski was on the floor having just made that outstanding save.
After the break, United were not quite so dominant, and Swansea had the best chance of the early stages when Tammy Abraham put a free header over the bar. Both teams changed shape, but the majority of the half was frustrating for both, broadly limited to long-range efforts in search of a goal.
But United wrapped up the points with three quick goals with around 10 minutes remaining. First, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan fashioned a chance for Lukaku, who with time and space in the box had a relatively simple chance which he slotted home with little fuss. Then Mkhitaryan set up another, sliding a perfect pass down the right channel for Pogba to dink a wonderful, delicate finish over Fabianski. It was four a couple of minutes later; when a Lukaku lay-off set Pogba free, he fed substitute Martial, who slid home with limited resistance from a Swansea defence who looked like they knew the game was up.
2. Mourinho’s message for title rivals
The conventional wisdom when United signed Lukaku was that, far from his habit of scoring plenty of goals against weaker teams being a weakness, it was exactly what they needed.
Draws against the lesser lights last season was what held them back: in their two games this term, they have ruthlessly swept aside two of those teams with little fuss. Two games are not enough to spot a trend, to truly conclude that last season’s problems have been fixed, and it should of course be noted that West Ham were desperate last week and Swansea come into the season woefully underprepared, having sold Gylfi Sigurdsson.
But the signs are certainly promising. This is starting to look more and more like a Jose Mourinho team, rarely flash, often not especially easy on the eye, but always effective. They tend to find a way to win, and even as it looked as if a lull in the second half might prove costly, a burst of four incisive, quick goals in four minutes killed the game off.
We won’t be able to properly judge this United team for a few weeks, and really until they’ve faced stronger opposition, but their status among the preseason favourites for the title looks justified.
3. Fears for Swansea without Sigurdsson
Swansea’s starting lineup looked pretty weak when it was announced, and with United’s commanding performance against West Ham last weekend you feared that an embarrassment might be on the cards for Paul Clement’s side.
That no such thrashing arrived in the first half was more a compliment to how Clement had organised them, plus some slightly disjointed passing from United. But the startlingly obvious fact remains that this is a Swansea side who narrowly avoided relegation last season and have got weaker since.
The prevarication over Sigurdsson’s move to Everton was understandable to an extent, in that no team wishes to lose their best player without a fight, but allowing that move to turn into a saga that spanned the summer has undoubtedly hampered Clement’s plans.
The only position you could argue that they have improved is at centre-forward, the mile-long limbs and tricky feet of Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham providing at least some threat at the point of their team. Even then, he was isolated, a victim of his team sitting so deep that any meaningful support was virtually impossible.
Clement’s men were well-organised and tough to break down, even if sitting back so much meant they invited pressure on themselves, but that was because it was essentially Clement’s only option. His task was little more than an exercise in damage limitation, because he didn’t have the players to do anything else.
With Sigurdsson gone, there was nobody to provide invention, or a link between midfield and attack. Clement did brilliantly in saving Swansea last season, but he will need a little more help from the club if they are to avoid another year of struggle this time.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.