When the flood lights went out after Manchester United’s victory over Newcastle United, home fans leaving the stadium would of been impressed with the way in which United had eventually swatted away their visitors.
Despite falling behind to a Dwight Gayle strike, the Red Devils burst into life towards the end of the first half with two headed goals from both Tony Martial and Chris Smalling, turning the game on its head. Further strikes from the returning Paul Pogba and a drought ending Romelu Lukaku, ensured that the all familiar home score line of four goals, was lit up on the Old Trafford scoreboard. A 4-1 win to reduce the arrears on Manchester City, back to eight points.
Paul Pogba’s return was pretty impressive. Firstly it meant that Nemanja Matic, could sit a lot deeper and the selection of Juan Mata, added the creativity further up the pitch. Jose Mourinho said he would manage Pogba’s minutes on the pitch in the coming weeks but Pogba only needed an hour to showcase just how much United had missed him. A goal and assist on his come back had highlighted just how important the enigmatic Frenchman was becoming to the United system.
The first few games of the season saw both Juan Mata and Pogba in the same eleven as a constant. Dominant attacking performances followed along with four goal splurges on a regular basis. When Pogba limped off after fifteen minutes during the opening Champions League game against Basel in September, little did we know the impact it would have on the dynamics of this United team. Marouane Fellaini is Jose’s go to man. His height and physical presence are exactly what the boss looks for when he needs to plug a hole in the midfield. The problem was that Fellaini was to also get injured, this time on international duty with Belgium.
This left just Matic and Ander Herrera, to boss the midfield. Now last season, Herrera had seemed to fit right into the managers plans. His man marking job on Eden Hazard in the game against Chelsea at Old Trafford last season was the cherry on top of the cake. For reasons unbeknown to us, Herrera could not get a look in at the start of the season. Once both Pogba and Fellaini were laid up on the treatment table, Herrera was summoned to take his place in the midfield. Unfortunately for United, the little Spaniard just could not find any rhythm or form. His performances were bang average at best. The partnership with Matic looked both disjointed and unstable.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was omitted from the latest match day squad. Another who’s recent form has been questioned by fans and media alike. The Armenian magician, who was in sparkling form at the beginning of the campaign, had also began to cut a lonely figure on the pitch. His body language was beginning to look lazy and half arsed. Now heres the thing. Once Paul Pogba’s hamstring gave up on him, so did Mkhitaryan’s mojo. United’s creativity disbanded in the blink of an eye.
The boss decided that once Pogba was unavailable, Mata was no longer trusted to be in the team with Matic and Herrera. The problem was that the creativity was sucked out of the team and with big games against Liverpool and Chelsea, United were left like a ship with no rudder. Once the team realised that they couldn’t play their way forwards, the defenders started shelling the ball from back to front, completely missing out the midfield and Mkhitaryan in particular. Lukaku was left exposed up front on his own, miles away from oncoming team mates. By the time the Belgian had controlled the ball, if it was anywhere near him, the opposition defence had either got back into position or the United midfield was so deep, it couldn’t support the lone forward. This period of five or six matches, which included two defeats, highlighted this fact.
The return of Pogba against Newcastle showed exactly why United spent so much money on him to bring him back. Mata was re installed into the side and is it a coincidence that United scored four goals again? The rest will do Mkhitaryan some good. Theres a lot of football to be played both domestically and on a european front. Mourinho will want to keep the big hitters fresh. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return, just in time for the hectic christmas period, will be a missive boost for both the boss and the dressing room. Marcos Rojo, who didn’t get off the bench at the weekend, will be a big plus, with both the left back and centre back positions, looking a little shaky at times.
If Manchester City continue to blow teams away for the remainder of the season, we will have to acknowledge that it was a worthy title win, but we all know that when the winter months begin to roll in, the fixtures begin to pile up and injuries, suspensions and loss of form, can all derail a title push. United must keep on winning to keep the pressure on. Mourinho needs to be braver in the fixtures against the top four. Away games at Watford and Arsenal, before a crunch game at Old Trafford against Manchester City, could well shape the remainder of the season.
Glory Glory Man United!