The season may only be three weeks old, but it is fair to say that the feel good factor is starting to settle in again at Old Trafford. Last Friday, Manchester United welcomed Southampton in the first competitive home game of José Mourinho’s reign as the Reds’ manager. The following 90 minutes brought some of the best football witnessed at Old Trafford in the last three years. The hope is that the good times continue on Saturday as Mourinho prepares to take his side to face one of Ferguson’s greatest allies, Mike Phelan.
Prior to United’s three-year post Sir Alex Ferguson slump a 2-0 win against as decent Saints side may not have raised many eyebrows among journalists, pundits and rival fans. Yet, the way Mourinho’s side went about its business last Friday was refreshing, especially for supporters who have suffered through some desperate times in the years since Ferguson’s retirement.
United played with purpose; forward penetrative passes, pace and power in abundance. There was a buzz in the air as fans approached the stadium prior to kick off. Something is stewing and excitement bubbled over at the sight of superstar signings Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Mourinho barked orders from the touchline. It was a throwback to the Ferguson era, with optimism and excitement replacing depression and disappointment. Supporters left Old Trafford as happy as they have been since 2013.
The Reds travel to Hull City as one of only four sides to boast a 100 per cent record this season. Manchester City and Chelsea were always likely to match United in the early stages of the season, but few predicted Hull would be in company with the country’s elite clubs.
The Tigers have suffered a tumultuous close season, missing out on transfer targets before the owners advised former manager Steve Bruce that there would be no budget for new players. Bruce promptly resigned, with Ferguson’s long-time assistant Phelan taking over. Somehow it has worked, with victory over Champions Leicester City despite Phelan enjoying just 13 fit first team players. Wins against Swansea City and Exeter City have followed – the good form has taken many by surprise, not least because most pundits considered the north east club as relegation certainties in the aftermath of Bruce’s resignation.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The season may only be three weeks old, but it is fair to say that the feel good factor is starting to settle in again at Old Trafford. United played with purpose against Southampton – forward penetrative passes, pace and power in abundance. There was a buzz in the air. Something is stewing.[/blockquote]
While it is far too early, and ridiculous, to draw any comparison with Leicester’s rise, Phelan deserves credit for the way he has approached a daunting task. Indeed, Phelan was often the butt of the joke during his time at United, particularly for his tight shorts, tight t-shirt combination, and then for taking credit for United’s success in Ferguson’s last five years at the club.
Yet, Phelan has undoubtedly motivated his squad well enough to bring early season success; and to cast doubts in the minds of those who foresaw the club’s fall.
Still, United represents a stern test for Phelan’s side, with Mourinho’s team earning three successive wins to suggest that it will not take long for the Portuguese to turn his side into title challengers once more. Against Southampton, the Reds were comfortable at the back and looked dangerous going forward against last season’s sixth place finishers.
There is little to suggest a defensive Hull side will make an impact on United’s back four, while makeshift defender Jake Livermore will not often have faced a striker of Ibrahimovic’s class.
Still, Phelan has learnt much from his old employers man-management techniques and remains cautiously optimistic ahead of what is likely to be a tricky encounter for the Tigers.
“I can’t praise the players here enough. There is a great atmosphere around the place, and everyone is smiling” Phelan said. “It’s another tough Premier League test for us on Saturday. It will be hard, but the players are relishing the challenge. United have quality in abundance, they’re aiming to win everything this season and it’s us who stand in their way this Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Mourinho is full of admiration for his counterpart, claiming that Phelan should be offered the Hull job on a permanent basis. Only after the Tigers lose to United on on Saturday, of course, to continue the Reds’ positive start to the season.
“It is very early, you have teams now with one to three points that in two months can be in the top part of the table, and teams that are now in top part right now that will go down,” Mourinho said.
“The most important thing for me is that we had a difficult start, with a strange pre-season, but we manage to win the Community Shield and win six points so far. I am happy with results and the way we play. It is difficult to win points in this league, but Hull have found a way to get points and it will be difficult for us on Saturday.”
Hull subs from: Kuciak, Diomande, Tymon, Bowen, Luer, Olley, Clackstone, Maguire
United subs from: Romero, Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Carrick, Herrera, Schneiderlin, Young, Memphis, Lingard, Mata, Rashford
With an untimely international break approaching Mourinho is seeking nine points from nine on the board with the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford to come on 10 September. It is an old cliché, but Saturday’s game is the type United must win if the club is to become champions once again.
Mourinho is unlikely to make many changes to the line-up which performed so well against Southampton. However fit again Jesse Lingard and Chris Smalling may provide the manager with some selection challenges.
At the back, Antonio Valencia performed well against Southampton – a make-shift right-back enjoying an excellent start to the new season. Like many, the Ecuadorian captain has rediscovered long-lost confidence under Mourinho and has relished his licence to get forward.
In the centre Smalling may find it difficult to break up the partnership of Eric Bailly and Daley Blind, which has performed well so far this season. The consensus is that Smalling will eventually come in for Blind, with Bailly so impressive that he may already be ‘un-droppable’. Luke Shaw continues at left-back, and it was the youngster’s driving run that won a penalty last Friday, outlining Mourinho’s game plan to empower his full-backs with attacking freedom.
In midfield, Paul Pogba marked his return to Old Trafford with a colossal performance against the Saints. Pogba looked every bit a player United has been missed for years. The performance was especially impressive considering the Frenchman has enjoyed little to no pre-season. Pogba will likely be partnered by Marounane Fellaini who, like Valencia, has emerged from the shadows to become a part of the team. The Belgian may not stay in the side, but has earned his place on current form.
Mourinho could bring in Henrik Mkhitaryan for a first start, despite Juan Mata’s strong performances on the right this season. The returning Lingard is also an option, with Mourinho potentially looking to play on the counter-attack against the Tigers.
Further forward Wayne Rooney continues at 10, despite another average performance against Southampton. While Mata’s role is a talking a point, the Rooney remains the elephant in the room. Despite the captain’s status, continuing poor form could yet lead Mourinho to drop Rooney for one of Mata or Mkhitaryan on a more regular basis.
Anthony Martial will provide support from the left despite a shaky start to the season, with Ibrahimovic United’s main threat up front. The Swede has been sensational since his arrival from Paris Saint German. The title could well be decided by the personal duel for the Premier League’s golden boot between Ibrahimovic and City counterpart Sergio Aguero.
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: A Halliday, E Smart
Fourth official: M Atkinson
Hull 0 – 2 United