Manchester United romped away with another fairly comfortable win against the returning David Moyes’ Sunderland on Boxing Day stretching their winning streak to five – in all competitions.
United started the game, 3 points off fifth placed Tottenham Hotspur and despite the momentum they had built up in an unbeaten run leading up to the game that had just hit double figures, the pressure was on them to improve their results at home and keep converting the advantage on the pitch to the scoreboard. Despite the fact that they were sixth in the overall league table, they were only the 12th best team at home with only 13 points accrued from 8 games at Old Trafford prior to the fixture against Sunderland.
Mourinho fielded a similar side to the one against West Bromwich Albion, bar two changes with Blind and Mata coming on for Mateo Darmian and an injured Wayne Rooney who is still one goal shy of equaling Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time club record of 249 goals. This consistency in the back five and midfield three has helped United go on a run that they are in and despite a slow start on Monday, they managed to score close to the half-time whistle, thanks to Daley Blind’s precise finish past an impressive Jordan Pickford – scoring his first goal under Jose Mourinho. United went into the half-time with a slender 1-0 lead and were good value for it.
A much improved second half from the Red Devils ensured a rather comfortable victory in the end – thanks to the combination of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – for the fourth time this season and more productive than any other duo in the Premier League so far. Ibrahimovic scored his 50th goal on the night in the calendar year, to put it in context, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has scored only one more than the 35-year old. But the icing on the cake was the game’s third goal scored by Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who came off the bench to score and round off an important win in front of the Stretford End – making it his fifth goal scored or assisted in the last five appearances.
United have been playing well for a good while now – their last defeat in all competitions came in Turkey in early November. With 8 wins in the last 11 games, Mourinho seems to have finally found the right balance in the squad – a strong spine that they have lacked in the last three seasons.
But much of the success on the pitch this season in the last couple of months has to be attributed to the club’s success in the summer transfer window when United strengthened on different fronts. Not only has the overall quality improved in terms of goals and chances created but the improvement in mental and physical strength of the side cannot be more evident. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, United play with a lot of confidence again, which is bordering on arrogance, almost as if they weren’t negatively affected by the weight of expectations to win every game, which has proved to be contagious.
It may only be five eye-catching performances but Henrikh Mkhitaryan has already shown what he could bring to United when he is involved and Mourinho’s management of him has been particularly faultless on hindsight, given the Armenian’s performances in his last few games. It was telling that United’s tempo was up by a few gears after Mkhitaryan’s arrival and with him playing week in week out from now on, the difference could be more noticeable, especially in the games against fellow top six sides, for the 27-year old has already made his mark in one of ‘those fixtures’ by scoring the winning goal against Spurs.
Eric Bailly may miss the next six weeks due to his involvement with Ivory Coast in the AFCON, but he has already shown glimpses of his no non-sense approach that Mourinho favors, with a higher ceiling than any other centre-back in the squad, and he, at 22, can only get better.
Manchester United have had similar big-spending transfer windows in the past, more so in recent years, but never has there been one as positively influential as the one this year.