MANCHESTER, England — Three points from Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough on Saturday in the Premier League.
1. Ferguson watches as United leave it late
Sir Alex Ferguson, 75 on New Year’s Eve, was at Old Trafford to see Manchester United stage the type of late show that defined his glorious reign as manager.
Current manager Jose Mourinho appeared almost apologetic at the end of a dramatic finale, as he consoled his beaten former colleague, Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka. But deep down, when Mourinho reflects on this, he should be filled with pride at his side’s late fight to score twice in the final five minutes.
Mourinho has been tasked with restoring United’s identity. And part of their DNA is a never-say-die attitude. Wearing the club’s badge used to mean never knowing when you are beaten. As they struck their two goals late on, this felt like the United fightback of old. With Ferguson looking on, this felt like the most fitting way to celebrate his birthday. Mourinho’s men had re-created the spirit of “Fergie time.”
It was not a vintage performance by any stretch, but this was an admirable show of guts in the circumstances, having faced adversity and, in their eyes, injustice.
From 1-0 down, and having earlier had a goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic controversially ruled out and then a penalty appeal denied, United delivered a late show to strike twice through Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba.
In the finest traditions of United, the young guns helped fire them home. Along with Martial’s encouraging display, there was a valuable contribution from Marcus Rashford, and do not forget that Pogba is only 23.
This was a game that United would have lost in recent seasons, but this team is a different beast under Mourinho. Five Premier League wins in a row is evidence of that.
But United had to work for it. With the score 0-0, a hugely controversial moment arrived. Official Lee Mason decided to disallow a strike by Ibrahimovic, ruling harshly that the Swede had raised a high foot when finishing beyond goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
There was barely any contact with Valdes, despite how much he made of the incident afterward. Old Trafford showed the sort of contempt for the Middlesbrough goalkeeper’s actions that former United manager Louis van Gaal once did during the former Barcelona keeper’s brief spell in Manchester.
Ferguson can reflect on how times have changed. Where once there was a supposed fear factor at Old Trafford, with close calls going United’s way, these days the opposite seems to happen on a far-too-regular basis. United dominated the first half without reward, with Pogba hitting the post from an earlier overhead kick.
Helped by that slice of luck, Middlesbrough profited and delivered a sucker punch as Alvaro Negredo offered a header for Grant Leadbitter to strike in.
Mourinho threw caution to the wind, and his changes — with Juan Mata influential in the recovery — paid off in the end.
2. Pogba saves United and Mourinho
Pogba’s momentum has been building for some time, and this was the perfect way to finish 2016. He was brought in as a potential match winner, and the world-record £89.3 million signing lived up to his billing here.
Mata delivered the cross, and the Frenchman made no mistake, producing the right connection and direction with his 86th-minute header to cause bedlam in the stands. The atmosphere had already been lively after Martial’s equaliser a minute earlier, and Pogba’s finish turned the volume up several notches.
Pogba’s contribution throughout the game often contained flashes of his class, with some pinpoint deliveries. There were some passes that did not quite hit the mark, but the intent was right, and it is difficult for his colleagues to always be on the talented midfielder’s wavelength.
Mourinho got away with breaking up the trio of Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in midfield. United’s recent resurgence in the Premier League has come with that trio working in tandem, complementing one another’s strengths.
Carrick, though, was reported by United to be ill for this match. It meant a reshuffle came, and it was an intriguing one. The United boss opted to put Herrera back into Carrick’s normal role and selected Marouane Fellaini as one of the more attack-minded of the midfield trio.
Fellaini, to his credit, often made himself useful. Herrera, meanwhile, looked less assured than normal, including an early error that nearly led to a Middlesbrough goal.
In the end, Mourinho’s changes just about paid off. Pogba made sure of that.
3. Plucky Middlesbrough go close
The sight of Mourinho walking out of the Old Trafford tunnel alongside an opposing manager, with a smile on his face and chatting warmly, was a rare one — and not one he would reserve for the likes of Pep Guardiola or Arsene Wenger.
The friendly face of Middlesbrough manager Karanka was there to plot a difficult afternoon for United, though. Karanka has a close relationship with Mourinho, with the pair having worked together at Real Madrid, but once the action started, it was up to the Spaniard to show he could compete against his mentor.
He certainly did that, and the final outcome was so cruel for him. Middlesbrough arrived at Old Trafford not just to defend but to counterattack with intent, and there were openings they spurned in the first half that had been warning signs to the home team.
The visitors’ game plan bore fruit in the second half when Leadbitter struck to give them a 1-0 lead. Sadly for Boro, they were about to be sunk by a memorable late fightback of which Ferguson would have approved.
Arindam is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @ARejSport.