Manchester United have made their best start to a Premier League season since 2011, having won six out of their opening seven games, drawing the other, scoring 21, conceding two and sit in second with only a goal separating them from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Just over 14 months after taking over, José Mourinho is finally getting his ideology across to his players and as the now-infamous chant at Old Trafford goes, he really is having Manchester United play the way Manchester United should.
For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson decided to call it a day, United are at their sparkling best. They are scoring goals at will, astute in defence and dominant in the middle of the park, and that has been evident in all their games this season. And although it could be argued that they haven’t yet met the opposition that would challenge them for the title, it must not be forgotten that these sorts of teams make up most leagues across the world.
A key factor behind United’s glorious start has been Mourinho’s faith in his players and there are two, who, at any other club probably would be low on confidence or even playing with the reserves on most weeks, but at United under Mourinho, they are in the best form of their careers: Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini.
Ashley Young and Success with Injuries
“The only player that I am aware of a possibility to leave is Ashley Young — a player I would love to keep. I am waiting for January 31 to know what is going on. I am not happy if he leaves, but he is the only player that I am informed has a possibility of leaving.”
When asked about his plans for the January window of 2017, José Mourinho made it clear that there was only one player with a chance of moving, and even then, he still admitted that he had Ashley Young in his plans. Little did he know that Young would be a crucial asset to have.
Young’s stop-start Manchester United career hasn’t always been too pleasing. The 2009 PFA Young Player of the Year arrived at Old Trafford in 2011 after a few scintillating seasons at Aston Villa and was seemingly at his peak. But after a good start to life at the club, his form slowly dwindled and injury concerns as well as a reputation for taking a plunge from time to time didn’t help his case. By 2014 with the arrival of Louis van Gaal, it seemed certain that he would be out of the door, but he remained persistent and managed to displace then club-record signing Ángel Di María from a starting berth having impressed his Dutch boss.
Mourinho’s arrival signalled the end again, but he’s found a new way to adapt to his new manager, this time excelling at full-back, where he is doing much better than expected. Antonio Valencia, a former winger himself, has done well in his defensive role and was the Players’ Player of the Year last season and this time, it’s the Englishman who is taking advantage of the situation. Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo have all been tested in the role, but injuries or a lack of form have resulted in them being pitched out instantly, with Young’s impressive upturn in form being a major beneficiary.
He has all the makings of a full-back , which has been on display since his introduction to the side. In games against Basel, Southampton and Crystal Palace, he provided assists to Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini. His persistence deserves praise and for a player who is supposed to be approaching the twilight of his career rather than setting off on a new adventure in a new position, he can be United’s new utility man, and get them the points when they need him most.
Mourinho has never lost faith in him, and his handling of his injury concerns is equally responsible for Young’s good form so far. The Portuguese manager has never shied away from making strange changes to his line-up and his willingness to keep players out until they return to full fitness has often paid off. It was seen last season with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it is visible right now with Young and Phil Jones, and with the way things are going, it can be expected when the likes of Marcos Rojo, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović are ready to lace their boots back on for a top-level fixture.
Marouane Fellaini’s resistance
The other standout star from Manchester United’s season so far is Fellaini, who, surprisingly, is now missed when he is not on the pitch. The often-misunderstood player has been scapegoated for the club’s failings on multiple occasions, but in a vindictive season, he is pulling in more suitors than doubters. His season kicked off after an injury to Paul Pogba in a Champions League game against Basel, and his goal that night only cemented his spot in the first team, with his unyielding style receiving a lot of preference from José Mourinho.
Similar to Young, he has repaid the faith his manager put in him. David Moyes, the man who brought him from Goodison Park to Old Trafford, failed to use Fellaini where he was best-suited, but Mourinho has avoided that error and depends on the big man to cause havoc in the opposition half, either as a second striker or as the dominating force in the middle of the park.
United’s most recent win against Crystal Palace was clear evidence of what Mourinho sees in him. In a commanding display, he scored twice, completed three interceptions and once again, proved his credentials in the air, winning three aerial duels as United ran riot over their sorry opponents.
Injury concerns over Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba are likely to keep him in the squad when Mourinho’s team visit Anfield for their test against Liverpool next week, and while he does prefer having Ander Herrera for the “big” games, Fellaini is sure to have some impact. Now in his fifth season, his mental toughness needs to have praise heaped on it. Following a disastrous cameo against Everton last December where he cost United two points in the dying seconds by giving away a penalty, he was jeered when introduced in the following game against Tottenham at Old Trafford. He has only been on an upward trend since, and is showing no signs of slowing down, becoming one of the key figures in Mourinho’s setup.
Both Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini have had similar stories to this point. Underwhelming, underappreciated and very often scapegoated, they have turned a corner over the last 14-odd months. They have worked to achieve the best phases of their time at the club and are now the two flag-bearers for the club’s resurgence under the new manager. Mourinho has always received plaudits for his man-management, and he is showing off the very best of it once again. These two are shining examples.
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