It’s amazing what a couple of characters can add to the ethos and dynamic of a football team. Perhaps it underlines how crucial minute details and margins can be in a game of football; for in a sport defined largely by confidence levels, often times, the diagnosis comes down to the intangibles.
On Saturday, Manchester United stepped out of the mist that had briefly threatened to engulf their season and returned to their more assured self. Indeed, such was the swagger about United that despite a first half that manifested some of their vulnerabilities, there was an underlying feeling that the team would eventually get the job done against a well organised Newcastle United side. And yet the narrative holds that there was every reason for Old Trafford to fear the worst when Newcastle United went ahead. How about for the simple reason that it’s been almost a year since United came from behind to win a premier league game. New Years’ Eve 2016! If ever you needed a stat that could point to the fragility of the team’s confidence in the wake of managerial turnover since Sir Alex hung up his gum, eh?
United have therefore suffered in the absence of their pair of characters that are thorough-breeds in the intangible qualities any manager would like to have in his team. That their return has coincided with the return of a four goal haul that had since been lost on the club is perhaps of little surprise. More than that, you could sense the lift in confidence levels among the rest of the players that have been in situ. Until that moment when social media succumbs to the immediacy of its memory, Paul Pogba’s apologists will not have to defend his place in the Manchester United set up.
Going forward, we didn’t learn anything new about Manchester United on Saturday. At near full strength, United will just about crush anybody. What we still don’t know is this team’s ability to rise to the next level when the opposition offers a sterner test. The question, for instance, abounds as to whether Mourinho’s game plan at Anfield and Stanford Bridge would have been better executed if he had his top guns available for selection. With Arsenal away and the Manchester derby to come early next month, perhaps it won’t be too long before we find out.
In the meantime, United can continue to bag the points everyone expects them to bag, if only to keep their title hopes alive. With Brighton & Hove Albion and Watford to come in a double-game week, there’s little reason for United to fail to keep pace and get their confidence up before the big tests come around again. Of course the danger remains that one game taken too lightly, with a little less motivation could result in the Huddersfield horror-show, but the only motivation this United team should require is the distance between themselves and the summit of the league. If that cannot spur them on, perhaps nothing will.