MANCHESTER, England — It was two years ago this weekend that Manchester United blew away the cobwebs of the David Moyes era with a 4-2 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford but, as much as that win was a cathartic moment for a club still coming to terms with the 2013 retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, it proved to be a false dawn for Louis van Gaal and his team.
United proceeded to lose their next three Premier League games — against Chelsea, Everton and West Brom — and it was that run of disappointing results, rather than the high of defeating their city rivals, which acted as the signpost for the following season.
Only time will tell what Sunday’s pulsating 2-0 victory against league leaders Chelsea will mean for Jose Mourinho and his players over the weeks to come and next season, but this win, secured by goals from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera, delivered a statement of intent for what lies ahead.
“Chelsea are the best counter-attacking team in the country and we controlled them very well,” Mourinho said after the game. “I’m really happy with the boys. I’m happy — not because it’s Chelsea — it’s because we need these three points.”
Next month marks the fourth anniversary of Ferguson’s retirement. The Moyes year was a write-off, with not one performance of note and, while two campaigns under Van Gaal offered brief glimpses of a way forward, they proved to be flickering moments that had long expired by the time he was ushered out of the door to make way for Mourinho at the end of last season.
And, for all of the frustrations of his season at Old Trafford, there have been signs of United’s latest boss finding a way to turn the club around. Defensively, they have become organised and resolute and their 22-game unbeaten run in the league, stretching back to defeat at Chelsea in October, is the longest in any major European league.
But what Mourinho has lacked has been a performance and result to point to as proof of genuine progress, which had previously been buried under a mountain of dropped points, particularly at home; aside from a tense, hard-fought win over Tottenham in December, United’s season has been low on big wins and high on exasperating draws.
Prior to Sunday, that win was the only time Mourinho’s men had defeated a top-seven opponent in the league, but the sceptics have been quietened by victory against a Chelsea team that has been perched at the top of the table for more than half a season.
After his players once again frustrated their manager with their failure to win a game they had dominated, against Anderlecht in the Europa League last Thursday, there had been few clues to suggest that Chelsea would be blown away in such convincing fashion.
But Mourinho’s selection and tactics proved to be a perfect combination against Antonio Conte’s team and United were the better side throughout the 90 minutes. Ander Herrera was given a key role, deployed in a man-marking role on Eden Hazard, which he did superbly to nullify the Chelsea playmaker’s threat.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was, according to Mourinho, rested after feeling “very tired” following the Anderlecht game; whether the absence of United’s s 28-goal top scorer was tactical or purely down to tired legs, it worked in his team’s favour.
Without the 35-year-old, the home side had the pace and movement up front of Marcus Rashford, who scored the opening goal after seven minutes, with Jesse Lingard buzzing around behind him in a supporting role. Every Chelsea backpass was chased down — Ibrahimovic cannot and will not do that — and the forwards’ work rate was contagious.
Centre-halves Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly were immense against Diego Costa, while full-backs Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian were as threatening going forward as they were determined defensively. Meanwhile, Ashley Young, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini all out-ran and out-tackled their direct opponents in Chelsea shirts.
In all, perhaps as many as seven players could claim this was their best performance for United, and that is a testament to the management of Mourinho, who was animated on the touchline, demonstratively directing his players and cajoling from the technical area, particularly when the clock was ticking down toward full-time.
But United were rarely in danger, despite Conte’s changes in the final stages and Chelsea’s attacking quality. To sum up the game, Chelsea failed to muster a single shot on target for the first time in a league game since September 2007, ironically another 2-0 defeat against United at Old Trafford.
Back then, Ferguson’s team was in its majestic pomp, on course for a Premier League and Champions League double. This United is still an awfully long way from threatening to match its glorious predecessors, but there were good signs in this win.
Whether it will be enough to spark a rise into the top four before the end of the season remains to be seen, but there is now a platform on which to build something that leads to the success the club has enjoyed in the past.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_