31st August 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
JosÃ© Mourinho has been manager of Manchester United for less than three months, but already the Portuguese tactician has restored a sense of identity to the Red Devils that has been missing for the last three years.
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of United's title winning 2012-13 season, the Old Trafford club has made a series of missteps that has seen them slip from their position as English football's dominants force, while, little by little, the characteristics that set United have been eroded.
Ferguson's initial replacement was Everton boss David Moyes. At the time, Moyes was seen as a younger version of Ferguson: both men were of hard-working Glaswegian stock, and the way Moyes brought stability and consistency to the Toffees on a shoestring budget demonstrated his managerial acumen.
But Moyes proved to be out of his depth in charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world, and lasted only nine months before being sacked. In that time, United had gone from ruthless purveyors of breakneck attacking football and champions of England, to impotent and toothless ditherers, lacking direction and inspiration, finishing seventh in the league.
The following season, legendary Dutch coach Louis van Gaal was brought in to restore United to the upper echelons of the Premier League. Unlike Moyes, there could be no doubt about van Gaal's temperament when taking charge of an elite club, as he'd already had success at Ajax, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Although the outspoken and eccentric Dutchman made United a harder side to beat than they'd been under Moyes, two seasons of drab, overly-cautious, possession-based football both failed to inspire fans and failed to deliver success aside from an FA Cup final triumph in what turned out to be van Gaal's final act as manager.
Once van Gaal's departure had been announced, there was only really one contender to step into the Old Trafford hot seat: JosÃ© Mourinho.
But Mourinho, for all his immense pedigree, came with a long list of caveats: many fans were concerned about the former Real Madrid and Internazionale coach's perceived mistrust of young players would he adhere to United's long-standing tradition of giving youth a chance? Others questioned why the club were so eager to appoint a man who'd been sacked by Chelsea just five months earlier.
But any such fears have since been allayed, and it's taken Mourinho just three Premier League games to restore United fans' faith in him and the club.
Mourinho had already won a lot of fans over before a ball was even kicked, though. The Portuguese was confident, confrontational and direct in his first press conference as United manager, insisting that he was intent on challenging for honours at United. Scraping into the Champions League via a fourth place league finish would no longer be considered an acceptable target; he is here to win, and win at all costs.
In the transfer market too, Mourinho was clear and decisive. He'd earmarked four areas of the squad that needed improving and had informed the board of the players he'd like them to sign for each role.
Villarreal defender Eric Bailly was the first through the door, signed for a fee of around £30 million. Bailly, a 22-year-old Ivory Coast international with just 18 months of top level football under his belt, was somewhat of an unknown quantity to most United fans. But the way the former Espanyol centre-back has adapted to life in the Manchester United line-up is evidence to the fact that Mourinho had clearly done his homework on the player.
Next came Zlatan Ibrahimovi?, one of the biggest names in the game. Signed on a free transfer from French champions Paris Saint Germain, the veteran Swedish striker came with a reputation as one of the very best forwards in Europe. And concerns over whether, at this advanced stage of his career, the 34-year-old would be able to cope with the physical nature of English football were laid to rest almost immediately, after outmuscling Leicester City's powerful centre-half Wes Morgan to score a late winner in the Community Shield at Wembley. Three goals in his first three Premier League games has shown that the man with an ego the size of a small planet can more than back-up his self-confidence.
The third new arrival was Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the star of Borussia Dortmund's revival under Thomas Tuchel last season. The Armenian topped the Bundesliga assists chart while also scoring more than twenty goals in all competitions during the last campaign, and Mourinho has identified him as the man to solve United's creativity problem.
The final piece of the puzzle for Mourinho was to acquire a box-to-box midfielder, to add the kind of power and drive to the United midfield that has been missing ever since Roy Keane began to slow down in around 2002.
The man Mourinho wanted was Paul Pogba, the Juventus midfielder who'd left United as a teenager on a free transfer in 2012. The 23-year-old Frenchman has marked himself out as one of the finest players in the world in his position, and United had to fend of rival interest from Real Madrid to land the gifted player.
And with their world record-breaking £89 million deal, they did just that. Although it turned into one of the most drawn out and excruciating will-he-won't-he transfer sagas in recent memory, United's capture of Pogba demonstrated both their financial might, as well as the drawing power of the project Mourinho was building at the club. If van Gaal had remained in charge, and without Champions League football, it is almost impossible to imagine Pogba agreeing to return to Old Trafford; the Mourinho effect was in evidence.
So when United finally took to the field, expectations were high. Their narrow Community Shield victory against Leicester was far from a vintage display from the Red Devils, but the performance of Bailly in defence, and the way they snatched a late winner, was encouraging.
Away at Bournemouth for the first Premier League campaign, a 3-1 win was, again, not perfect. But there was a renewed ruthlessness to the way United took their chances and put the game to bed.
Next up was Southampton at home, and Pogba's second debut. The Frenchman showed United exactly what they'd been missing since his departure from the club four years earlier; the strength and physicality he added to the midfield, as well as his skill and precision in advanced areas gave United a whole new dimension. And, never one to be overshadowed, Ibrahimovi? bagged himself a brace.
And last weekend against Hull City, United found themselves up against a well organised and resolute defensive unit who were determined to get at least a point from the game. For the best part of 90 minutes, the Red Devils dominated possession and tried in vain to break the Tigers down.
Last season, there would have been a resigned feeling amongst the travelling supporters, almost certain that their side were destined to drop points. But this time it was different; this time the United fans felt that familiar sense of inevitability about their side grabbing a late winner just like they had so many times under Ferguson.
And in the 92nd minute, it was 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, on as a substitute, who scored to snatch all three points for United.
Before August had ended, and with only three league games played, Mourinho had already restored United's trademark never-say-die attitude, as well as bringing back their star power, their fear factor and their relentless will to win all of which were abundant during Ferguson's glory years, but had been conspicuously absent for the last three years.
Jose Mourinho bringing déjà vu to Manchester United
31st August 2016. By Ryan Baldi.