Jose Mourinho and Manchester United spent £115 million this summer on two players who they hope will catalyze a title challenge, and on Sunday, that title challenge got off to an ideal start.
And while both players, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku, have a long way to go to justify their respective price tags, each provided a quintessential example of his worth in United’s season-opening 4-0 victory over West Ham at Old Trafford.
Matic charged into a 32nd-minute tackle in midfield, winning the ball and inciting a picture-perfect Mourinho counter-attack. Seconds later, Lukaku latched onto a through-ball and finished expertly inside the near post, setting United on its way.
Lukaku further sweetened his debut with a second goal after the halftime break, flicking Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s free kick past Joe Hart at the far post.
It wasn’t just an ideal way for Lukaku and Matic to kickstart their Man United careers. There is no reason to believe it won’t be a sign of things to come. United was the most impressive team on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, and the two debutants, along with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, were big reasons why.
After the final whistle, Mourinho was asked if the game could have gone much better. “I don’t think so,” he said.
With Rashford wide left, Mkhitaryan central and Juan Mata wide right behind Lukaku, and Pogba and Matic behind them, United was as balanced and connected as a new-look unit could hope to be in its first competitive game together. Its attacking enterprise was much improved from a season ago. Its pace of play was outstanding.
The first goal exemplified that. There was more to it than just the tackle and the finish. After the disruptive challenge that started the break, Matic continued his run forward, a decision that ultimately made the goal possible.
In fact, tracking his involvement in the play shows his full value to United. The Serbian, who was eventually named Man of the Match, began level with Pogba, his midfield partner. He then covered almost 20 yards to charge down Pedro Obiang:
After getting a foot to Obiang’s pass, he then looped around Rashford, sprinted up the left wing, and turned a 3-v-3 into a 4-v-3 with Andre Ayew trailing. His presence forced West Ham center back Winston Reid to turn his hips to the sideline to account for the option that Matic offered:
That, in turn, allowed Lukaku to beat Reid’s recovery run to Rashford’s well-weighted pass.
Rashford was brilliant all game as well. Whereas Mata’s trickery posed problems on one wing, Rashford troubled West Ham with his pace, movement and skill on the other. The 19-year-old was promising but somewhat inconsistent last season; on Sunday, he was consistently dangerous. He almost added a third for United in the 66th minute, but after cutting inside, his right-footed drive smacked against the inside of the far post.
Mourinho iced the game with 15 minutes remaining by replacing Mata with Marouane Fellaini. Anthony Martial also replaced Rashford late on, and profited from Mkhitaryan’s brilliance to net a third goal for United.
Then Pogba’s individual mastery made it four. He drove forward, took a pass from Martial, and curled a 20-yard shot past Hart.
Old Trafford rocked. Its songs were joyous. This was the Manchester United that fans remembered, and the Manchester United they have yearned for ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and results dipped.
It is easy to overreact to one game, and and important to not take reactions too far. No, United hasn’t immediately supplanted Manchester City as the title favorite. No, the Red Devils are not definitively “back.”
But there are real reasons to believe they are. There are real reasons to believe the longterm validity of Sunday’s statement. Whereas last season United stuttered to early wins, this was different.
xG map for Manchester United – West Ham. This was just comprehensive. pic.twitter.com/D0sQxtHB6m
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 13, 2017
United looked more polished than even Mourinho could have hoped. The Red Devils fully deserve their place atop the table after one week. And with Matic and Pogba driving a strong midfield, and Rashford, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku propelling the attack, they might just be there, or thereabouts, for months to come.
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