The anticipation leading up to Manchester United’s first home game of the 2016/17 season has been at fever pitch to say the least. It almost feels like the good old days.
Jose Mourinho continues to say all the right things in stark contrast to his two predecessors, United’s ambition is back where it should be. United fans having high expectations is acceptable to Jose and of course, for a team of United’s stature, it’s only right.
Mourinho has this week suggested that Paul Pogba is the best midfielder in the world. He has though, gone at pains to say that winning the ballon d’or may be a step too far for Pogba given the necessity of a 20+ goal haul this year to secure the prize. Whilst talking up the talent of our (current) iconic Frenchman, Mourinho has tried to temper expectations at this early stage of the season. Prior to kick-off, it remained to be seen whether Pogba would live up to the hype in his first game. The fact remains, the anticipation feels at its highest point for many a year.
And so it was that Pogba was picked in a five-man attacking midfield which also included Mata, Rooney & Martial as the second line behind Ibrahimovic with the only surprise being that the second central man was Fellaini rather than Mkhitaryan.
Southampton started the game brightly and Pogba’s first touch was a nervous one, losing the ball in the middle of the park to allow Southampton to attack.
United soon got into their stride and in the tenth minute some nice interplay between Valencia and Mata, resulted in a United corner. The corner was defended well but a few minutes of possession football and some nice passing ensued, with the ball breaking to Pogba on the edge of the United area for the first shot on goal of the night.
The first fifteen minutes had United holding the upper hand in terms of possession of both the ball and attacking areas and whilst little was created, the speed with which United were getting through the midfield was encouraging.
Southampton came back into the game with some good moves of their own and things settled down until after 28 minutes, another industrious Valencia break on the right, found Pogba in possession on the left corner of the box. A deft chip over the defender’s head allowed a clever flick from Mata with Ibrahimovic acrobatically shooting just wide.
United weren’t getting it all their own way though and just after the half hour, Shane Long found himself one on one with De Gea, however a weak shot resulted which didn’t trouble the United keeper. United’s defensive frailties were still a concern and were having something of an impact on the crowd which had calmed somewhat following an impressive pre-game build up.
Then came another Valencia break down the right hand side on 35 minutes, Rooney collected the ball by the corner flag and floated a perfect cross to the far side of the box. Zlatan’s predatory instincts and athleticism got the better of Fonte and a bullet header darted past Forster’s flailing left hand. 1-0 United.
That was pretty much it for the first half with United just about deserving the lead at half time.
5 minutes into the half and the very next attack from Luke Shaw down the left hand side, saw him break into the Southampton penalty area, only to be brought down by the number 4, Clasie. United penalty. Ibrahimovic took the spot kick and sent Forster the wrong way to put the Reds 2-0 up.
On 64 minutes Fellaini played the ball to the advancing Martial whose strong run gave him the opportunity for another shot on goal. Strong defending ensured the shot was blocked.
United were really turning up the heat now and a number of attacks ensued with Ibrahimović, Martial and Pogba all involved – the latter seemingly desperate to put his mark in the game and debut, with a goal. For now, he remained involved with some wonderful touches, if somewhat frustrated by the paucity of chances.
It is relevant to note at this point that Antonio Valencia was involved in much of the United build up play. It’s good to see him trying to get past people and actually putting in quality crosses. It appears Jose Mourinho has had a positive impact on the Ecuadorian’s confidence.
This was more like it. The speed of the United attacks were becoming more and more impressive and also more like the United of old. With this accelerated attaching style, the crowd responded and the atmosphere improved accordingly.
In the 75th minute, the industrious Juan Mata was replaced by Mkhitaryan to much vocal joy from the Old Trafford faithful. Mata had done well but there has been so much excitement surrounding the Albanian., it was a popular substitution. This was followed up 5 minutes later when Herrera replaced the excellent Anthony Martial. The final substitution was on 88 minutes when Smalling came on for Wayne Rooney.
To their credit, Southampton remained interested in the game and produced a couple of promising attacks. However, at no stage did United look in any real trouble and they were able to see out of the game for a relatively convincing 2-0 victory.
Overall, it was a very solid 7/10 performance from just about every player in a United shirt. Defensively we still look vulnerable on the break and any team with classy attacking players, will put United in a more difficult situation than Southampton did today. The midfield performance was encouraging with counter-attacks going through from defence to attack in quick time.
In terms of the new boys, Ibrahimović scored two goals which won United the game. Apart from that, his impact was limited (if it’s possible after scoring two goals) to a supporting role. Mkhitaryan had limited opportunities to impact the game with only 15 minutes on the field, but showed some lovely touches. Baily continues to impress with solid performances but really, tonight was about Pogba.
The Frenchmen did well and worked hard throughout the whole game, he was involved in much of Uniited’s build up play and it can only be said, it was an enthusiastic and impressive second debut.
So a good night for the Reds, Mourinho wins his first competitive game at Old Trafford and it’s two games played, two wins from United. Long may it continue!