Manchester United look suddenly, surprisingly competent
Jose Mourinho is acting up like himself and his team is starting to look like one. Something strange is happening with Manchester United. Something unexpected; something unsettling. Something that you might almost — impossibly, unthinkably — call competent. Martin Keown, on the television, called it United’s best ever result in Europe. Martin Keown, on the television, was being silly. Still, United’s 2-1 victory over Juventus was a cracking result, and it came attached to a performance that wasn’t perfect, that creaked and groaned in places, but that made quite a lot of sense. Beating Juventus in Turin is, however you manage, a decent achievement. Nobody else has managed it this season; only Lazio, Napoli, and Real Madrid managed it last. As a win it relied on a few excellent saves from David de Gea, some profligate finishing from Juventus, and some magnificent late Arsenal-ing from Wojciech Szczęsny. But United went 1-0 down to Juventus a few weeks ago, and meekly accepted their fate. Here they didn’t. Indeed, it’s becoming a habit: concede, then come back. It’s probably not as useful a habit as taking the lead, controlling a game, and winning, but it’s not a bad placeholder in the meantime. Since Jose Mourinho woke up on the morning of Oct. 6 to find the story of his imminent sacking all over the papers, United have played six games. They’ve conceded first in five of them, and haven’t kept a clean sheet in any. But they’ve only lost the one. A kind of attacking shape is starting to appear as well, predicated on a move away from the tired, goal-shy figure of Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian may be injured, or may just be taking a moment to gather his thoughts, but in his absence United’s attack has been a shifting thing. Alexis Sanchez started against Juve, with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard for company, which meant that United had nobody to fire low-percentage long balls and inaccurate crosses towards. In place of that, there was movement, pace, energy, a little bit of trickery. Even Sanchez looked a little revived, causing more problems for his opponents than his teammates. Meanwhile, Martial is starting to purr again. Admittedly, this didn’t lead to a grand weight of chances against Juventus’ brutal central defenders, and both goals came from set pieces. But it did mean that United looked a better kind in their toothless. A team with teeth coming, perhaps, not long gone. Teething problems, not gummy decrepitude. We’ve probably spent too much time talking about teeth. Let’s move on. Add to that a settled central defensive partnership — of all the defenders Mourinho despises, he despises Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof the least — the re-emergence of Ander Herrera in midfield, and a sudden happy knack for substitutions, and United are starting to come together into something. This thing may not be good enough to win the Champions League. It may not even be good enough to qualify for it next time around. But it’s already better than whatever that was that lost to West Ham. There’s a simple test for when United are in a good moment: If we take it as a given that Mourinho will always be acting up, come rain or shine, win or lose. And in Turin, as he ambled around the pitch with his hand to his ear, then laughed about it in the press conference afterwards, he looked like he was having fun again. This may not be particularly concerning to Europe’s settled big beasts. Manchester City, in particular, will be eyeing United’s still-rickety defense hungrily ahead of Sunday’s derby. But over the last month and a half, ever since rumors of Mourinho’s imminent dismissal came to a head, United have looked like a team getting better. Which is nice. Because before that they looked like 11 men with a headache, being shouted at by a man with a toothache. And that’s not a Super League that anybody’s signing up for.