So, after all the doom and gloom prior to the beginning of the campaign, United went out on Friday – with a point to prove, and they did, by winning a tight game against Leicester City to claim all 3 points in the opening weekend at Old Trafford.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the performance of the home side on the pitch, of Mourinho in the press conference and finally of Paul Pogba in the mixed zone.
1. Andreas Pereira provides the variety in midfield that Man United lacked
The midfield that started the game for United on Friday was certainly the most interesting aspect of a line-up that was, in itself, an intriguing one. There is still a lot of uncertainty about who will and will not be a part of the squad come September with some clearly looking for pastures new, while a few others – be forced to. But Pereira’s strong pre-season displays had meant that the Brazilian thoroughly earned his place in the first 11 – but probably not where even he would have expected to feature in.
As a number 6 – the 22-year old was quietly excellent; particularly in moments when Leicester had the ball, Pereira’s smart positioning in between the two ‘Mourinho centre-halves’ and the way he stepped out to thwart impending danger was encouraging: both for the player and the manager, who now has another potential selection headache that he would really not mind having.
Pereira was composed throughout – and being an attacking player by nature – always looked for a passing option forward but the crucial dynamic he will bring in place of fellow defensive midfielder of the old generation in Nemanja Matic is: speed of movement on and off the ball. With the addition of the electric Fred, the pace of United’s midfield has improved manifold and with time, their passing combinations will, too.
2. Luke Shaw and the Redeemer at the Death
No player has had it harder at Manchester United in the last four years than Luke Shaw. Scouted by Moyes’ entourage and signed by Dutchman Louis van Gaal with the recommendation of his then assistant Ryan Giggs, Shaw’s future as heir to Evra’s throne, looked to have been secured for the next ten years and so was Manchester United’s void at left back.
Under Mourinho, a manager who wanted to sign him for his boyhood club Chelsea, it finally looked like Shaw was going to rediscover his game, but multiple injuries and recurring fitness problems meant that the now 23-year old was almost on his way out of the club before his career even properly began. A full pre-season with the club in the American tour and a personalised fitness regime in the off-season accelerated his recovery and greatly improved his physical condition in comparison to many of his peers at the club – and may have forced himself in the plans of the manager again.
Even without the goal on Friday, his performance would have rightly been up there with the best he has put in, in over a year, but the winning goal, albeit fortuitous in a way, could not have come at a better time for both the club and himself as he faces a make or break season at Manchester United.
3. The Wear & Tear of the Mourinho-Pogba Fabric
Friday evening saw Paul Pogba score the opening goal through a sweetly executed penalty, to get his personal tally up and running from game one. It was a strong display from the Frenchman, who was named captain – especially given the fact the now World Cup winner joined the first team without adequate preparation.
“Pogba was a monster” claimed Mourinho after admitting to the fact that he asked Pogba to help the first team and all the more so – the midfield containing two debutants in a high stakes encounter. Pogba duly obliged, putting his best foot forward but it was his off-the-pitch actions that have once again, stoked discussion and a possibility of a serious rift between the manager and the talisman: the all-important axis of United.
In the mixed zone, Paul Pogba who generally avoids short interviews post-match, conveyed his message across to the media and more importantly to the manager, about his thoughts on the way he felt about the manager.
In a statement where he suggested that he was not happy with the way he was treated, he also mentioned that he would get fined – if he revealed what his feelings were, which does not make great reading for the fans, who are reeling from a disappointing pre-season and transfer window. And the timing of it all is not great either.
With Barcelona circling around Pogba’s camp sensing unrest, Mourinho’s ‘olive branch’ gesture of rewarding him the armband does not seem enough to mend the clearly repaired relationship. Maybe it’s time the Portuguese renounced his old ways of rubbing his best players the wrong way to provoke a reaction.
They have not always been positive. And why should they be?