What a difference a summer makes. Two games into José Mourinho’s tenure as Manchester United manager and the narrative surrounding England’s most successful club has significantly changed. Victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth, allied to the new manager and fresh faces in the dressing room, have brought confidence coursing back. The sentiment on the terraces has done a 180 – far from the despondency of the last few years, fans now believe that United is not only back, but bound for success. Friday night under Old Trafford’s lights is just one more step towards the inevitable.
Mourinho’s side takes on Southampton ahead of the weekend in another TV-based ‘innovation’, with the visitors also having undergone something of a transition this summer. Ronald Koeman had taken the Saints to a highest ever Premier League finish of sixth last season, only for the Dutchman to depart for the newly enriched Everton. Claude Puel, the former Lille manager who once fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson, is the man charged with stopping Mourinho from extending an outstanding home record that has stretched, bar last season, over most of his career.
The Portuguese’s newly emboldened team could feature all four of the summer’s acquisitions; Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will certainly start, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba will feature at some point during the fixture. Indeed, the Frenchman’s inclusion for the first time since returning to United this month in a world-record deal should set the tone for a raucous atmosphere. The prosaic performances offered up by Louis van Gaal served only to subdue the Old Trafford crowd; it has taken change, significant but not revolutionary, to offer fresh hope that United will return to the club’s rightful place at the head of English football.
So, can the fear-factor return to Old Trafford this season? “Yes,” insists Mourinho. “The fans can also help. Everything starts there: the relationship between the team and the fans. If there is a connection then the factor of being really strong at home has to be back. If the fans play a part there’ll be no chance for the opponent.”
The Reds performances in beating Leicester and Bournemouth offered hints of a more attacking future to come. Just what those fans want, although Mourinho has cautioned against the notion that his side will offer all-out-attack this season. Still, United’s movement in the final third over both games was impressively vibrant even if the overall performance at Wembley and Dean Court verged towards the functional rather than creative.
Much of the attacking improvement comes with Ibrahimovic’s integration – he is a player may be approaching 35, but offers movement superseding that of a much younger men. Through midfield United has moved the ball with more purpose even in a small sample during the season to date, while Bailly has settled in rapidly even if he is not without flaws. The result: few expect Southampton to spoil Mourinho’s home début.
José Mourinho: looking for first home win
Yet, there are also some challenges ahead for Mourinho. The 53-year-old has extracted positive performances from Marouane Fellaini in midfield, but few supporters will credibly believe that rich vein will continue. Meanwhile, the roles of Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin have yet to be settled. How new man Pogba fits into an attacking unit that already features Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic, two players occupying much the same space the Frenchman thrives in, is yet to be defined. For the moment Rooney starts at 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Pogba presumably slotting into a two-man midfield when he is fit enough to start. It is the role in which he did not impress over the summer with France.
At the back there are questions too. While Bailly has settled well, it is unclear who will partner the Ivorian – if the former Villarreal man stays in the team over the longer piece. Chris Smalling is due to return from suspension, while Daley Blind has been the preferred partner to date. Phil Jones could yet take up the role as Smalling’s foil that many believed was initially Mourinho’s preference. For now, Bailly is the man in possession.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Reds performances in beating Leicester and Bournemouth offered hints of a more attacking future to come. Just what the fans want. Mourinho has cautioned against the notion that his side will offer all-out-attack this season, but United’s movement in the final third over both games was impressively vibrant. [/blockquote]
“He is a young boy playing in a completely different competition with a different club,” said Mourinho of the defender Baiily. “Despite all the pressure and expectation that comes with playing for United, he plays against Leicester at Wembley and is comfortable, leading and communicative.”
Most of those challenges are good problems to have; for the first time in three years United looks to have a strong squad, with two viable options in each position. No longer does a United manager talk of incremental improvement or barriers to success, but a challenge for the game’s top honours. Victory over mid-ranked teams such as Southampton becomes a must, although it is a team that has beaten United in Manchester two seasons in succession.
The visitors arrive on the back of a draw with Watford, a game in which Puel was surprised by the Hornet’s long-ball tactics, while the Saints are still adjusting to having lost so many important players over the last few campaigns – including Sadio Mané this summer.
The focus is on United though; a team on the up and supporters feeling confident once again.
“If, at Old Trafford, a couple of thousand away opponents can be more supportive and more noisy than 70-something thousand then we are in trouble, and it means that there is no connection between the team and the supporters,” said Mourinho. It’s an observation that could have been made at any point last season. It was true as well. Not, Rant suspects, on Friday night.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Jones, Rojo, Blind, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Mata, Carrick, Young, Herrera, Schneiderlin, Lingard, Depay, Rashford
Southampton subs from: Gardos, Fonte, Martina, Clasie, Reed, Rodriguez, Austin, Højbjerg, McCarthy, Pied
Paul Pogba and Chris Smalling are both available after suspension, with the England defender likely to replace Blind at the back. Pogo is more likely to start on the bench but will play “some minutes” according to Mourinho.
“He’s ready to play,” declared the new manager. “We played against Leicester with players with less training than him and we look at that match as a way to improve them, to accelerate that process. With Paul, it’s a bit of the same – not one single minute of any pre-season match or friendly but almost two weeks of work with us. Sometimes with the group, sometimes separately, and the condition is okay to play some minutes and to accelerate the process.”
Elsewhere there are unlikely to be significant changes, although Mkhitaryan is pushing for his first start since joining the club in July. The Armenian enjoyed a full pre-season, but featured only sparsely in United’s matches and started both competitive games to date on the bench. In midfield Herrera, Carrick, Schneiderlin and Fellaini compete for two places, with the Belgian’s positive performances over the past two games counting in his favour.
Southampton captain Jose Fonte, who has this week been the subject of many column inches involving a mooted transfer to United, could feature. The defender missed Southampton’s opener because of a late start to pre-season. Left-back Ryan Bertrand is injured so Matt Targett continues at left-back.
“There is no problem with Jose,” said Puel of his defender, “it is just strange that this rumour comes just before the game at United. But he is a very good professional and he has played well in training. JoHe cannot be disturbed by this rumour but I am just surprised to hear this before the game, two days before the match.”
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: R West, A Holmes
Fourth official: A Marriner
United 3-0 Southampton