The headlines, save for Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, have been about Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Yet, lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the “special privileges” at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form, of sorts. Three defeats in succession derailed what early season momentum Mourinho’s side had built up. Victories over Leicester City and Zorya Luhansk in the past week have restored a more natural order to proceedings. Both without Rooney.
Indeed, it is hard to look past Rooney’s benching as providing anything but stimulus for United’s victory over champions Leicester last weekend. Mourinho’s side was fluid in attack, dangerous even, benefiting both from the subtlety of Juan Mata at number 10, and real pace on the wings. Rooney’s more laboured style – neither a true number 10, nor a goalscoring midfielder – has long held United back.
Not that the Reds followed up a handsome win over Leicester with another thumping victory on Thursday night. Zorya proved to be more obdurate than many predicted, especially with Mourinho heavily rotating for the second Europa League fixture in succession. Rooney’s entry as a late substitute brought an assist, although even the most one-eyed Rooneyite will be loathe to credit the Scouser for shanking a passable chance into the path of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Still, victory is victory and United badly needed the brace of wins in the past week. Mourinho needed it too, with some in the media questioning whether the Portuguese has lost his touch, not least with a trio of defeats coming so soon after Chelsea’s awful season last year.
Mourinho will now look to move on from the first difficult period of his Old Trafford reign, with the Reds already playing catch-up on Manchester City in the Premier League. The up side? United could well cut the six-point deficit on the Blues this weekend, with Pep Guardiola’s side facing at genuine test away at Tottenham Hotspur. Not that Mourinho places any greater emphasis on Stoke City’s visit ahead of the Sunday lunchtime kick-off.
“Every game is massive. Watford was massive; we lost three points against them and that’s no different than the three points we lost against Man City,” said the United manager. “So every game for me is important, but you are right, we have some big opponents in October.
Meanwhile, Mark Hughes’ Stoke side arrives at Old Trafford with problems of its own. The Potters lie bottom of the Premier League after a disastrous start to the new campaign. The Welshman’s side is yet to win in the league this season, placing the former United striker under significant pressure.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The headlines have been about Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the special privileges at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form.[/blockquote]
Stoke finished ninth in the Premier League last season, a fine achievement for a club that last won a major trophy in 1972.
“We have broken a few records in my time here and we have another opportunity to break another this weekend,” said Hughes on Friday.
“Registering a positive result at Old Trafford is something that the Club hasn’t managed to do in 40 odd years, so that is a box I would love to be able to tick on Sunday. I don’t think that we will be thinking too much about our record there leading into the game – we will take it in its own merit. We have beaten them at home so why can’t we go and enjoy a similar result on the road?”
Probably, some might add, because this version of Stoke is among the worst in recent years. The Potters have secured draws against Middlesboro and West Bromwich Albion, while beating Stevenage Borough in the League cup this season, but there is little else to celebrate. There have been heavy defeats to Crystal Palace and City, with a humiliating loss to Mike Phelan’s Hull City also in the mix.
Hughes enjoyed a spikey relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson as managerial rivals, but retains a soft-spot for Sunday’s rivals after appearing more than 400 times for the club over two spells.
“United has been a huge part of my football life, and I won numerous trophies there,” Hughes added. “I always get a nice feeling going back in there – there are people there now who were there when I was playing and it is always nice to catch up.
“I played in a winning Manchester United team that was challenging for titles year on year, and that team from personal experience, had the mind-set that they have to win every game. You can see the club’s intent in what they have done this summer. You sense that there will be a marked improvement on where they finish this season.”
With a new look team, and a renewed sense of confidence, supporters at Old Trafford may well agree.
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Depay, Young, Mkhitaryan
Stoke subs from: Grant, Haugaard, Muniesa, Bardsley, Adam, Imbula,Sobhi, Walters, Diouf, Bojan, Crouch
Thursday night’s fixture with Zorya helps little with the preparation, but Mourinho enjoys a nearly fully fit squad. Defender Phil Jones faces a few “more weeks” on the sidelines with a knee injury, but Henryk Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw both trained this week and should be in the matchday squad. Tim Fosu-Mensah was forced off with a knock in United’s Europa League game in midweek and may miss Sunday’s game.
Otherwise United should look little different to the side that started against Leicester last weekend, with captain Wayne Rooney likely to begin the game on the bench once more.
With Shaw only just returning from illness Daley Blind is likely to be retained at left-back, with Chris Smalling alongside Eric Bailly in central defence. United’s new midfield axis of Ander Herrera, in a deeper role, and Paul Pogba roaming worked well against the Champions, offering the kind of dynamic and flexible combination that United has lacked for much of the past three seasons.
In attack, Mata is now the fulcrum of United’s creativity in Rooney’s absence and is likely to be ranked by Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. Memphis Depay would have played 30 minutes against Zorya but for Fosu-Mensah’s injury. Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the line. .
United could climb as high as third with victory. After Mourinho’s recent blip, nothing else will do, although the new manager believes that he is learning on the job.
“I need time, I need the players to play and I need to see them in different circumstances. I need to understand more about them. There is so much to learn about the players that only when you work with them for a long, long time is when you know them really well. There is also always a surprise behind the door when you work with a team for three or four or five months, there is always a surprise.”
The surprise, some might say, is that it took the new manager eight games to figure out a solution to ‘the Rooney problem’.
Referee: Bobby Madley
Assistants: M Perry, E Smart
Fourth official: M Jones
United 3-0 Stoke