Manchester United have claimed their rightful place at the top of the Premier League table on the opening weekend of the season following an impressive 4-0 win over West Ham.
Rival fans have attempted to downplay the victory, but United supporters are all too aware of what this win means. Having watched their team draw against awful sides week after week at home last season, it was a huge relief to see their players dish out the emphatic result that the performance deserved.
West Ham mustered just one shot on target, so intent were they to defend and leave Old Trafford with another lucky draw, knowing this was a tactic that worked well for inferior sides at Old Trafford last season. The Hammers also had two shots on target last year when they left Manchester with a 1-1 draw.
While it’s still very early days, the contrast between United’s display against Slaven Bilic’s team this season and last season is huge.
For one, Jose Mourinho didn’t get himself sent to the stands this time.
More importantly though, he has managed to find a way to allow United to go back to their roots. They attacked from the first minute to the last, scoring four goals and yet still managing to flatter West Ham with the final result. It could, and should, have been more.
Top of the league ?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 13, 2017
Of course, it’s far too early to get carried away, but United fans will struggle to contain themselves after seeing their team’s best attacking display since anything post-Ferguson.
The win over Chelsea last season was arguably the best tactical performance. They were playing against the champions elect yet cruised to a 2-0 victory, preventing the west London club from registering a shot on target for the first time in a decade (which last happened, coincidentally, they lost 2-0 at Old Trafford in 2007). But in terms of playing attacking football, moving the ball around quickly, creating chances and linking up with their teammates, the win over West Ham was the best 90 minutes the supporters have seen since the Fergie days.
And about time too. United fans have been singing for a year that “Jose’s playing the way that United should” but this hasn’t been entirely accurate.
While the final few months of last season may blur the memory, United actually looked fairly decent up until January. They were sort of in the title race until February too, before Mourinho, in his typical pragmatic style, opted to prioritise the Europa League as this was a safer bet for Champions League qualification and would earn him yet another winner’s medal.
Still, had Mourinho not chased Europe’s lesser competition, United would have finished closer to Chelsea, even if not managing to overthrow them, after finding themselves just two points behind second-placed Spurs at the end of February.
Yet for any of the positives, you’d have to be watching United games through special specs to believe that Mourinho’s brand of football last season was anything like what the supporters expected.
This season, with the title a genuine expectation, nobody believed Mourinho would deploy his players with a truly attacking mentality. He would play it safe, surely. Yet in the 4-0 win over West Ham, that’s exactly what we saw.
"I am ready for the next 15 years. Here? Yes." pic.twitter.com/cNZW80g5Od
— Scott Patterson (@R_o_M) July 19, 2017
Like Ferguson’s teams, United attacked like there was no fear of losing. The opposition may score but that didn’t stop them from giving their all.
Under the legendary manager, this strategy worked to their detriment at times though, with the 6-1 home defeat against City the best example. Having gone down to 10 men in the first half, United were about to finish the game with a respectable 3-1 defeat.
But so ingrained was the attacking mentality, the ‘never say die’ attitude, that United continued to attack in to the dying minutes instead of seeing the game out, conceding three goals from the 90th minute onwards.
Mourinho is unlikely to ever allow such a thing to happen. Those inside Old Trafford on that awful afternoon against City will be glad of that. But last season, despite the fans claiming that he was playing football in the United way, the element of risk and excitement was often missing. At 1-0 or 2-0 you want to see your players pouring forward to go in for the kill, but that rarely happened. Mourinho would shut up shop.
Against West Ham, United were a different animal, and this was largely thanks to Nemanja Matic.
Chelsea supporters dismissed the transfer, claiming he was useless, but if this is Matic when he’s past his best, I would have loved to see him at his peak. He totally dominated midfield and not just in the ways you would expect. He made plenty of tackles and interceptions but also took on a few opponents and played some cracking balls forward.
It was his interception and then his overlapping run that allowed Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku to steal the show for the first goal.
He told me last Wednesday it was a great loss.. https://t.co/30PFkonx3H
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) August 14, 2017
This is what the fans had hoped for. A player who would go about his business, no frills, to allow others to shine.
On the back of their opening day defeat, you would imagine Chelsea fans had their head in their hands watching the player they allowed to leave, playing such a crucial role in setting up the goal for a player they once sold and who snubbed them to play for Mourinho once more.
There’s 37 games to go, and with the welcomed distraction of Champions League football, it would be foolish to hail United as future champions already. But the fact that Mourinho has addressed some of the failings of last season is hugely reassuring to the supporters.
Pep Guardiola, with a higher starting position, has spent more money than Mourinho for the past two summers. City should win the league. But you have to imagine that United will push them all the way.
Something tells me I’m into something good…