MIDDLESBROUGH, England — Three thoughts on Manchester United’s 3-1 win at Middlesbrough in the Premier League.
1. Man United climb to fifth
It had to happen at some point. Before this weekend, Manchester United had been in sixth place since Dec. 3, some 105 days ago. Everton’s win on Saturday briefly pushed them down to seventh, but this 3-1 win over Middlesbrough has now taken them to the vertiginous heights of fifth.
Goals from Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia were just about enough to secure the necessary points to climb above Arsenal, but the victory was not as comfortable as the score suggested.
The last 15 minutes were much closer than they should have been against a Middlesbrough team whose goal, scored by substitute Rudy Gestede, was only their 20th of the league season; Boro hadn’t scored twice in a game since December and not at all in the last four games.
Jose Mourinho has never been a manager excessively fond of aesthetics, but at the moment he seems to almost delight in collecting difficult and unattractive victories. After he complained last week that United’s schedule was tiring his players out, his starting line-up a looked part necessity, part protest.
Without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the injured Paul Pogba, Mourinho nonetheless left Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench and set out his side in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Marcus Rashford supported up front by Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard.
The early stages showed a Middlesbrough side, managed for the first time by Steve Agnew after Aitor Karanka left the club on Thursday, with much more dynamism and David De Gea was forced into a fine save from a Grant Leadbitter shot.
But after an initial spell of home pressure it was United that gained control of the game. Victor Valdes was forced into a couple of brilliant saves from Rashford and Valencia, before the visitors took the lead on the half-hour mark.
Ashley Young, playing at left wing-back, made space on the flank and cut in on his right foot to deliver a perfect cross to the back post, where Fellaini was waiting to nod home. Boro’s saving grace this season has been their defence, but that was a troublingly simple and avoidable goal to concede from their point of view.
Boro also started the second-half in good style, but failed to create any significant chances and were ultimately punished on the counter-attack. Mata brought the ball forward, passed on to Lingard and, as the Boro defence backed off meekly, he picked out the top corner from 25 yards. For long spells Lingard can make you wonder how he is a regular at a team like United, then he produces a goal like that.
Mourinho decided a 2-0 lead was plenty and withdrew Mata in favour of Marcos Rojo. The uber-defensive approach looked like it might have backfired with 14 minutes left, when Chris Smalling’s six-yard-box slip gave Gestede a chance he could barely miss.
The hosts’ pressure built, only to be relieved by a moment of slapstick calamity. Valdes slipped while attempting a clearance and the dogged Valencia ran the ball over the line. Mourinho leapt up and down on the touchline, then bounced straight down the tunnel, job done. Just about.
2. Rashford shows his promise again
Among the marvelling about Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring this season, the inevitable sub-plot has been the fear that United are too reliant on the 35-year-old. While a win over a team in the relegation zone isn’t one to signal the return of the good times to Old Trafford, it must nonetheless be a relief that they won this game without their talisman.
Rashford, filling Ibrahimovic’s centre-forward role, didn’t score and missed a couple of very presentable chances — his finishing is not yet clinical enough overall, while his decision-making is still sometimes askew — but he still offered plenty to remind us that his is a talent to remain excited about.
If nothing else, his pace created holes and uncertainty in the Middlesbrough defence that others exploited and the man who was ostensibly marking him, Bernardo, may need a couple of days to get over the chasing he got.
Still only 19, Rashford has now been an established United first-teamer for a little over a year and it’s easy to forget he’s still learning on the job. For some players, being thrown in at such a young age would be a problem, but his early success has actually bought him some time and some patience.
He might not have been afforded so many opportunities had his promotion to the first XI been more carefully managed, and his early excellence not been so dramatic. Rashford is a distance from being a polished forward, but his potential is being smoothed over and there is much, much more to come.
3. Encouragement for Middlesbrough
The hope was that Karanka’s departure would remove the shackles from Middlesbrough. So ponderous had been their build-up play, it was as if someone had told their ex-boss that the rules of football stated you had to play 30 sideways passes before you were allowed to approach the opposition penalty area. It worked to a point, and got Boro promoted from the Championship, but Premier League defences proved trickier to break down.
The decision to part company with Karanka was clearly a difficult one for Boro chairman Steve Gibson, who has reiterated that it was a mutual call and said this week that he would “remain friends” with his former manager.
Nevertheless, even if this result wasn’t ideal, Gibson must have watched Sunday’s game, safe in the knowledge that the decision was the correct one. In the first 20 minutes Boro showed more dynamism and positive intent than in almost the whole season, sticking to a possession game but making those passes much more quickly and getting the ball forward in rapid fashion.
The disappointment was that this approach didn’t last the whole game, but it did at least provide some encouragement. With just 10 games remaining and with Boro still in the bottom three they are running out of time. Under Agnew they need more of that opening 20 minutes and, if they manage it, they at least stand a chance.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.