Out of all the ways that a football match could be won, Mourinho’s Manchester United characteristically picked out the most tedious and nerve-wracking one out there at the Hawthorns on Sunday evening.
Against a West Bromwich Albion side who have yet to win a Premier League encounter since August, United started the game, probably rightly so, in second gear. After some deliberation in the middle of the park, the visitors scored off what now seems like a routine well-mastered attempt at goal – a fizzing cross from Marcus Rashford from wide-left for former Albion forward Romelu Lukaku to glance the ball towards the top right corner, past Ben Foster. 1-0, no hassle.
Lukaku may not have rescued United in the biggest of games, but his record against the lesser sides is nothing to be scorned at. In fact, all great forwards, are in essence, excellent flat-track bullies. The Belgian’s goal against West Brom was his 31st in 39 games against non-top six sides since the start of the 2016-17 season.
A non-celebration ensured something to talk about after the match – but the general consensus is that all is not well at United, despite their largely positive results, points on board and the league position when compared to the last four seasons. In fact, Mourinho’s Manchester United now have more points at this stage than the Chelsea side that ended up breaking the all-time Premier League record points accumulated over the course of 38 games.
Manchester United were going to score four again and that seemed certain at one point in that first half when the Red Devils enjoyed close to 65% possession. Jesse Lingard continued his good run of form away from home as he managed to slot the ball past Foster – for the second goal, aided by a stroke of fortune, which often favours the brave. In Lingard’s case it certainly was the case as the 25-year old scored his 4th goal in the last 3 trips away from home, playing a vital role in all three wins.
But what followed after the whistle was both baffling and not entirely surprising at the same time. From keeping the ball and going for the next goal, Mourinho’s side sat off and almost willingly allowed West Bromwich Albion more of the possession. An increased amount of possession translated into a higher number of half-chances and confidence in their own ability meant West Bromwich Albion inevitably pegging one back through a Chris Brunt set piece. What was once a comfortable stroll in the park almost became a scuba-dive into a volcano.
Post match interviews are a dire affair these days in the Mourinho camp, but even by that standards, Sunday was quite sombre. When quizzed about the muted celebrations in the dugout from Lukaku and himself – despite the crucial result he said,
“I didn’t celebrate too. Nobody was happier than me. Fifteen years ago I look at myself celebrating goals. With maturity you go into levels that you control your emotions better. Romelu was a happy kid at West Brom (on loan during the 2012/13 season) – maybe at the back of the mind it was his love for the club.”
Whether this was a genuine answer from Mourinho or just another piece of narrative that the Portuguese wants the press to focus on and thereby avoid more pressing discussions concerning the existing 11-point gap between themselves and the summit, is for another day.
But be it the chase to reach the very top of the table or to secure a place in one of the three automatic Champions League qualification spots, Manchester United are certainly well placed – probably the best placed among the rest of the supporting cast, for now.