There is a degree of frustration, albeit slight, that came with witnessing Manchester United battle and win in torrential rain against one of the premier league’s better teams. These were, after-all, the same players that put up a lacklustre effort against one of the premier league’s alsorans last week enroute to dropping three valuable points. What fans would give for the same level of commitment every week!
For if was not to be because of sheer quality that United would win the game on Saturday, then the will to win channeled through controlled aggression was the minimum expectation. Indeed, in the end, United’s proved enough to seal an important win that was as much a necessity as it was a relief.
October has seen the club hit a dry spell in terms of goals, but it was probably expected given the up turn in the level of opposition. United have been forced, on more than one occasion this month to alter their system to contain the threat of the opposition. On Saturday, it was a back three to match the preferred formation of Tottenham Hotspur. Thankfully, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones were available to restore United to their defensive solidity that they sorely missed at Huddersfield last week. (Indeed, United are the only team in Europe’s top 5 leagues yet to concede a league goal at Old Trafford). With that in check, it was only a matter of finding the breakthrough that would all but seal the points.
United remain five points off the summit of the league but context has to be factored in whilst evaluating their season so far. United are eight points better off than at this stage last season after 10 league games. Regardless how you measure it, this is progress. The kind fans expected to see this season with a promise of more. Second in the league, virtually through to the 16 of the Champions league (which can be confirmed with victory over Benfica this week), and in the last 8 of the League Cup which they are defending…..not bad heading into the winter. Jose Mourinho has been visibly irked by the inquisitions into United’s progress this season and he picked a fine moment at the end of the game to make ‘that’ gesture to whomever it concerns.
With injuries to key personnel, the manager has been making do with what he has available to navigate a difficult month. The biggest miss has been Paul Pogba. United’s midfield has looked anything but fluid since the end of September. Henrickh Mkhitaryan in particular has suffered for it. He looked slightly lost again on Saturday because Ander Herrera is not joining him in creative duties up top, in the way Paul does now that Matic is available to free him of defensive work. United will be better in the middle when the Frenchman returns and hopefully that will be sooner rather than later.
Still, United had the application to win in a game that was always going to be decided by the margins. The confidence picked up from beating a title rival should hold the club in good stead ahead of another difficult game at the weekend at Stamford Bridge. Before that though is a chance to seal Champions League progression against Benfica at Old Trafford. United will do well to confirm that European chapter with a couple of games to spare because they need to invest as much energy as possible into the domestic schedule. Victory on Saturday breathed life into the season at a time when it threatened to fade and when the vultures had started to circle. If the levels of application are similar on Sunday, we should be all systems go!