Manchester United managed to shake off fatigue concerns to overcome a stubborn Middlesbrough in Riverside on Sunday, which saw them ascend the Premier League table for the first time since game-week 11.
Mourinho fielded a back three again – for the third consecutive game this season, not to mention against a team that has massively struggled to score goals, his decision was slightly perplexing. The visitors looked a hastily assembled side at least on paper, clearly a consequence of injuries and suspensions that the Portuguese has had to contend with, in what has been a long season – with the trip to Riverside already their 40th outing in all competitions.
United started the game with a fair amount of control, a lot of which was exercised without the ball. But that did not prevent the side from creating enough chances to score more than once inside the first half – unlike in recent seasons when the balance between attacking and defending seemed unattainable. The Red Devils created the first clear cut chance through a combination of their two academy products – Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, with the latter in particular, exemplifying what raw pace and tenacity up top could achieve in terms of penetration, as opposed to having a static but powerful striker to lead the line.
Rashford failed to convert the first big chance that fell in his way, not too dissimilar to the opportunity he missed at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. Thibaut Courtois made a crucial save that ensured Chelsea through to the semi-final of the FA Cup and for Victor Valdes it was the first of a few incredible saves to try and keep Middlesbrough alive in the game.
But the resistance was finally broken as Ashley Young’s deep cross into the far post found Marouane Fellaini’s head with precision as the Belgian only needed to direct the ball into the net to score his first Premier League goal of the season, continuing his impressive form in recent games.
But it was man of the match Jesse Lingard who scored the goal of the afternoon and potentially one of the goals of the season for United. Lingard, staying true to his identity of scoring great goals in important moments for his boyhood club, popped up with a strike that ultimately clinched all three points.
The 24-year old picked the ball up from halfway line, ran with it and smashed it into the top right hand corner of the net, leaving ex-United goalkeeper Victor Valdes motionless, like he had already read the script. Lingard was United’s best player by some distance even before he scored opened his Premier League account Mourinho. The attacking midfielder moved the ball with purpose and completed twice as many passes in the final third as any other Man United player managed on Sunday (16).
His intelligent movement, often his biggest asset, perfectly complemented Rashford’s pace up front which enabled United get behind the visitors’ defence despite only managing 37% of possession against a side that was happy to sit off them.
It was testament to Lingard’s temperament which has earned him admirers inside the United camp (although not as many outside of it), Mourinho in particular, that he was able to produce a sublime goal like that in a game they needed to win, despite getting an inconsistent run of games under the Portuguese manager.
Barring a late scare in the form of Rudy Gestede’s goal, pouncing on a completely avoidable kerfuffle in the penalty area, not helped by the seven defenders camped inside United’s box, Manchester United looked the better team; or in this case, the more clinical side, which has not often been the case with the away side.
When Valencia scored the third goal off United’s 14th attempt of the afternoon, aided by a Valdes error, United’s conversion rate stood at 21% – which is almost twice their average across the whole campaign, which was managed, rather oddly in a game they missed their top goalscorer, if they did at all.
Although the game and the win itself left supporters with more questions than answers, United got the result they wanted, in a way Mourinho likes his teams to win – controlled and ruthlessly efficient. And at this stage of the campaign, they will be glad to keep doing it over and over again.