It should always be noted in moments of criticism that this Manchester United team has different personalities. In a climate which is so hypercritical to every moment in every match, every single pass is analysed, every single error magnified.
United were brilliant for half of the first half, after a slow start. This much is football, it’s par for the course for almost every single team, but things as they are, a look at social media feels like you’re watching a constantly fluctuating support; those who were certain beyond all doubt that Jose Mourinho was destined for the sack two weeks ago seem more determined to look beyond the positive spells and use the quiet spells as evidence for the idea that there has been little progress.
It seems like a pointless exercise because the team do enough to make that argument even when doing well. Because we don’t learn anything. Going into the game, anything could have happened, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t praise when it goes well or criticise when it doesn’t. Or, that we shouldn’t look for signs of progress. But the point is that we’ve been here too many times for the positive signs to be beacons of hope on which we should invest.
Similarly, those critical of United’s nervy end to the game should put things into perspective. Sure, articles like this are all well and good. It’s just good humour. Jonathan Liew is a talented sportswriter but somewhere along the way he appears to have adopted the misconception that Manchester United are expected to win every game by at least three clear goals. There are two teams in every game. Watford have enjoyed an excellent start to the season beyond any patronising.
It took a very good United spell in the first half to earn the right to get a result from a very tough game. It is far from a matter of condescension, and rather does a writer, or any observer, a disservice when he or she uses such a result or performance to criticise Jose Mourinho. All that does is fuel the theory that there is an agenda against him, if even when he wins, he doesn’t.
Jekyll part II
Paul Pogba is perhaps the perfect exponent of the personality crisis United appear to be afflicted by. Frustrating in the second half, at times truly mesmeric in the first. There were passes and individual moments that maybe only he in world football is capable of. In those moments this is a player who is potentially the best in the league, let alone best midfielder.
Much like everything else, people have used the contract extension for Marouane Fellaini as a stick to beat Jose Mourinho with. The Belgian’s technical limitations continue to frustrate those who see him as a poster boy for United’s travails. Fred was signed with the idea that he would provide a foil for Pogba. It is more concerning that no matter what people make of him, and whatever people make of the decision to play him, Fellaini appears to be more effective in this regard.
But Paul Pogba — even if, and maybe particularly if he continues to want his move away — is no longer of the age where assessments of his form can be judged with caveats so generous like being played in a particular area of midfield or alongside a player with a particular skillset. Here is a player of multiple trophy-winning experience who ought to be bringing the best out of others.
You still have the feeling that Manchester United’s fortunes depend more heavily on the form of their defence than the form of Paul Pogba but within the consequential argument that United will therefore need to be scoring two or three goals every game, the Frenchman is the key protagonist.
It wasn’t one of his best but that really says more about the extensive catalogue of exceptional stops from David De Gea than it does to dilute the significance of the latest effort. His injury time save literally prevented two points from being dropped. A timely reminder, then, as the goalkeeper negotiates his contract, of his worth.
A small, but potentially telling, moment from Vicarage Road could be found in the celebrations around the second goal. It was a smart set piece routine which utilised the abilities of Fellaini to full effect. For a player so tall, his aerial prowess when it comes to scoring goals would probably rank very low on one of those xG thingamajigs.
But here was a way it really could be effective, and it seemed as if it was something worked on in training with Kieran McKenna; a theory confirmed by the manager after the match.
“Because we trained the corner during the week, the best thing that can happen to coaches is you train and you see it happen in the match,” Mourinho said. “And they are happening even in these last few matches, even in the one against Tottenham, are happening things that are working, the positional, the movement. But the set-pieces are very specific things that you work, you work, you work and for weeks and weeks and weeks sometimes you don’t see the results of that work. So when it happens, was happiness for coaching staff.”
The devil in the detail is that such a move comes amidst the continued dialogue that Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has no plan. An alternative suggestion is that sometimes a selection of underperforming players can easily make it seem that way, just as they did under Louis van Gaal.
You don’t need a discerning eye to consider that Mourinho normally likes a 4-3-3 shape with his team. The balance isn’t perfect, primarily due to the right hand side (the neglect in this area is astounding, and possibly Woodward’s masterstroke by emphasising the ‘one central defender’ argument) but there are still occasions when it can be effective.
As with the first point in this piece, it is consistency, rather than capability, which is the key. United’s relatively limited summer spend, particularly in reference to the needs of the squad, means that third or fourth place is about what the supporters should expect. If there is to be any improvement on that, you would anticipate that it will have to be found in the training ground work of Mourinho and his new assistant.