Last year, Manchester United were a team full of hesitant superstars who punched below their weight and only redeemed a shoddy sixth-place finish by winning the Europa League. Expensive debutante Paul Pogba wasn’t the sort of immediate world-beater so many people (unfairly) thought he’d be, and the team lacked the muscular defiance that’s come to define the best José Mourinho teams. United had talent, just not cohesiveness.
That’s no longer the case this year. The Red Devils have planted their flag early on in this Premier League season, winning both of their first two games 4-0 and looking like the arrogant, swaggering Mourinho teams of old, the same ones that snatched up league titles and continental silverware and amassed legions of fans and haters alike in their tempestuous wake. It would be foolish to read too much into results over Swansea and West Ham (neither of whom are slouches but neither of whom will compete for the Champions League spots), but the process has been genuinely eye-opening. United are not fucking around.
Where Mourinho moved Paul Pogba around the field last year and couldn’t seem to settle on where or how best to play him, this time around the plan appears much more consistent: 4-2-3-1 formation, Nemanja Matić on the left sitting deep and covering the space in front of the defense, and Pogba on the right, free to roam wherever his heart desires. No player in the world combines the physical prowess, the technical acumen, and mental aptitude to shrink the pitch the way Pogba can, and with the freedom Mourinho’s given him to run and dribble and pass all over the pitch, Pogba is able to maximize his talents to deadly effect. Pogba doesn’t fit neatly into traditional notions of positionality but in general, the more he sees the ball and the closer he gets it toward goal, the better.
Ahead of Pogba, Mourinho is finally playing Henrikh Mkhitaryan as much as he should. Playing for Manchester United and playing for Borussia Dortmund are two very different propositions, so it’s not terribly surprising it took the Armenian the better part of a season to adjust to the difference. The zippy set-up man wasn’t featured as prominently as most would’ve expected last year, but now he’s starting all the time and getting on the ball a ton in the final third and has teed up an EPL-high three assists. Raw numbers don’t mean much at this stage, but his effortless connection with both Pogba and striker Romelu Lukaku augur well for this chain of players who will be the chief orchestrators of United getting the ball from midfield to the final third and finally into the back of the net. United created plenty last season—a natural aftereffect of dropping about £130 million on Pogba and Mkhitaryan—but weren’t great at getting the ball over the line. Spending £75 million on Lukaku was the best possible way to fix this problem, adding the ruthless finisher they needed to complete the circuit.
Take Lukaku’s first United goal, for example. It wasn’t a terribly complex one, but the Belgian sprinted past a trio of West Ham defenders and made a perfectly timed run followed by a textbook first-touch finish:
Whether they be break-neck counters like the goal above facilitated by the pressing of Matić and the speed and penetrative passing of Rashford, or more patiently created plays featuring nifty one-twos between needle-threaders like Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan, or even deep early crosses curling off the feet of Antonio Valencia or Daley Blind, United will generate plenty of chances of every variety that will be begging for a tenacious forward to get on the end of. Lukaku is just that kind of player, and his three goals in two league matches is early proof of how bountiful his harvest of goals should be by season’s end.
Beating two average-ish Premier League teams to inaugurate a new season doesn’t mean the Red Devils are destined for the title now, of course. Hell, just last year United ran riot early on, appearing to solidify themselves as title contenders only to repeatedly trip all over the place for the bulk of the campaign ahead of their disappointing sixth-place finish. Still, there does seem to be something different about this team. There’s an intensity and a lightness that feels new.
Anthony Martial, who looked like a future world great during his first season at the club but was basically AWOL all of last year, has only played 25 minutes of soccer in the first two matches. But with how he’s embracing his role as a super sub and sounding much more confident and comfortable in the team this year as opposed to last, he appears back on track toward reaching his immense potential. The squad as a whole looks like a tight-knit unit, and the manager himself seems cheerier than normal. Mourinho can be a grouchy fucker, a temperament often mirrored by his defense-first teams. However, he’s spent this season smirking and big-upping his players, lighting imaginary victory cigars and in all ways luxuriating in his swag:
This is about as confident as Mourinho has ever looked. The Special One has a particular brand of arrogance that in some ways seems backwards. Though often brash and unapologetically immodest, his moments of showy confidence are usually reserved for those times when his abilities or competence are questioned. When he’s wounded is when he lashes out and insists on insisting that he is the best. When things are good—when his teams are dominating as they always do and no one can tell him anything—his demeanor is almost humble and subdued. At these moments his underlying imperiousness is only evident by his sly grins and the unmistakable air that he’s taking great pains not to brag about himself because he doesn’t have to, that his greatness is so self-evident that to say anything about it would be redundant and beneath him. You can see this in the following tunnel interview after the Swansea match, when Mourinho was asked about the late flurry of goals that killed off what had been a fairly tight match:
United have yet to be truly tested, and a game against, say, Chelsea is a completely different situation in which to let the “horses run freely.” Mourinho is notorious for playing for lifeless 1-0 wins or 0-0 draws in the big games, but with the Premier League as hotly contested as it is this year, hoping for a tight win or two but settling for draws against his peers might not suffice. There are simply too many elite teams (not counting the inveterate bed-shitters at Arsenal) to not at least push for three points every weekend. Thankfully, Mourinho’s team isn’t exactly built for grinding. They’re going to punch for the mouth and laugh about it afterwards. More than anything else, it’s that attitude that is the true Mourinho Way.