Twelve months is a long time in football. United started December 2015 with a goal-less draw at home to West Ham United, crashed out of the Champions League in Germany, lost three further games in the league to then newly promoted Bournemouth, Norwich City, Stoke City on Boxing Day and ended the year with a 0-0 draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford, in a month that sucked every last ounce of hope the fans had of any potential progress under Louis van Gaal.
Enter 2016 December. United under Jose Mourinho managed to win their fifth consecutive Premier League fixture (sixth overall) in a classic Manchester United fashion and go 12 games unbeaten in all competitions – for the first time in three years injecting the belief and confidence back that the Red Devils are headed in the right direction, playing the ‘United way’ or whatever that was.
But it could have been very different. United started tentatively in the first half – with Anthony Martial often dragging the team forward with his ability to terrorise full-backs. The Frenchman did just that and reached the byline taking advantage of his trickery on the ball, put it into the box for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score and the Swede duly obliged. 1-0 Manchester United… but oh wait. Referee Lee Mason thought long and hard to only disallow the goal much to the shock of the supporters inside the stadium which quickly turned into frustration and scathing fury.
United went into the half seething at the injustice and had to pay for a momentary lapse in concentration from Chris Smalling, who had only played a minute of Premier League football prior to the game since the 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, and the visitors pounced on it giving Middlesbrough the lead in the 67th minute. Aitor Karanka was about to pull off the ultimate smash and grab act at Old Trafford in 2016.
But Mourinho then responded with a substitution that was reminiscent of the similarly frantic days under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Portuguese went for the jugular, bringing Rashford on for centre-half Chris Smalling in the 72nd minute. He had already brought the Spaniard Juan Mata on just before Karanka’s side opened the scoring in addition to Marcos Rojo in place of Daley Blind for the extra pace on the break. At one stage, out of the 11 at Manchester United, only two were natural defenders. United attacked with ferocity and aggression, creating chances, hitting the post which lifted the crowd and an equalizer from United felt imminent. And it came in the 85th minute with Anthony Martial capping off his brilliant performance with a finely taken goal, a significant one at that, amidst all the speculation surrounding him and a loan move to Sevilla.
That goal opened the floodgates and the home side went for it again and found the winner through Paul Pogba, who scored his 6th goal of the season and 4th in the Premier League – giving United a precious lead a minute after the equalizer which they would hold on to grab all 3 points going in to the New Year. These three points may have come against a side that will find itself in the relegation battle come April and May but the manner in which they did must give the whole club a lift – as United show further evidence of a winning mentality being instilled at a club that has been left brooding over this post-Ferguson hangover for the past 3 seasons.
Mourinho has emphasised on more than one occasion that he wanted to build a team that sticks to the attacking traditions of Manchester United. His team may not have scored the amount of goals in the first half of the campaign but there has been a clear shift in the style of play from United that suggests an improvement in the output in the second half of the season.
Mourinho’s United have created 239 chances scoring 29 goals in 19 games – that’s about 93 more than in the same number of games last year (146) – on an average they created 6 more chances per game than they did in the first half of 2015/16.
Three points have never been more important for the Red Devils approaching January when they will find themselves competing in three different competitions but the drama that ensued on the final day of a largely dull 2016, will have been the icing on the cake. It reminded what Manchester United did more often in the past when they were successful and what they should look to do more often – be brave in the face of adversity and results will take care of themselves.
Lee Mason may have done a favour after all without even meaning to.