Jose Mourinho's Manchester United have finally broken free of Louis van Gaal's defensive shackles
On 21st September 2014, in Louis van Gaal's first season at the club, Manchester United travelled to the King Power Stadium, home of Leicester City who had been promoted back to the Premier League after a hiatus of eleven years. The Red Devils had been off to an extremely poor start to the season, having lost to Swansea on the opening day and drawing with Sunderland and Burnley.
But their 4-0 win against QPR at home had given the fans reason to be optimistic. Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria had scored their first goals for the club, and the Argentine winger was showing glimpses of his form at Real Madrid that had prompted United to splash out 59.7 million pounds for him, making him the most expensive British transfer in history at that point of time.
Against Leicester, van Gaal went with an eye-watering front four consisting of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria. United were off to the perfect start when loan signing Falcao combined encouragingly well with van Persie for the Dutchman to head them into the lead. Barely three minutes later, Di Maria scored possibly his best ever goal at the club, when he received the ball from Rooney at the edge of the box and chipped it over a dumbfounded Kasper Schmeichel.
The Foxes pulled one back through Di Maria's compatriot Leonardo Ulloa, but Herrera soon made it 3-1 to put his team firmly in the driver's seat. After the nightmare they suffered under David Moyes the previous season, the Old Trafford faithful dared to dream again. And United managed to maintain the lead till the 62nd minute. What happened after that is one of the most infamous collapses in Premier League history.
Rafael was penalised, perhaps a bit harshly, for pulling Jamie Vardy back inside the box. David Nugent promptly made it 3-2 from the resulting spot kick, and that was the catalyst for the Red Devils to crumble in the last 30 odd minutes, as they conceded 3 more goals to lose 5-3. To compound their miseries, Tyler Blackett was sent off late in the game for another foul on Vardy.
Looking back at that match almost three years later, that probably was the one result that gave rise to Louis van Gaal's bland, defensive and possession-based style of play that United resorted to for the rest of the Dutchman's tenure. They did finish fourth that season to qualify for the Champions League, but the second successive year without silverware was unacceptable for several fans. Still, the board chose to place their faith in the former Barcelona coach and gave him another season's time.
They did win the FA Cup the following year, but it wasn't enough to save van Gaal's job, as he was sacked days after the final at Wembley. United scored a measly 49 goals in the league, their record low for a Premier League season. Quite rightfully, fans were more enraged at the lack of attacking flair rather than their failure to qualify for the Champions League.
Ironically, it is Jose Mourinho who has restored United's traditional attacking swagger. The Portuguese boss who is renowned, and often criticised for his counter-attacking style of play has managed to combine the best qualities of some of his former teams with a fast, high pressing approach. United have scored 16 goals in the opening five fixtures. Last year, it took them 11 matches to achieve the same tally.
Mourinho faced the same criticism as van Gaal during his first season, when his team registered six 0-0 draws in the league, and 15 draws in total. He was heavily criticised for compromising attack for defence, as United yet again managed to score only 54 goals.
But this season, his team seem to be a reformed one. Mourinho has struck gold on his ideal starting lineup, having rarely changed it in all the league games so far. Against Everton this weekend, United pressed so high up the pitch, particularly the front four of Lukaku, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Rashford, that the Toffees' goalkeeper Jordan Pickford often found himself in uncomfortable situations where he just had to hoof the ball.
But the best part is that Mourinho has not needed to compromise anywhere to achieve this. The signing of Matic from Chelsea has enabled United to control the midfield and recover possession quickly whenever they lose the ball. Eric Bailly has carried over his excellent form from last season, and Phil Jones has peaked at exactly the right time.
This means that not only did United control the pace of play, they often forced Everton into misplaced passes with their high intensity of pressing. Mata and Mkhitaryan, in particular, were devastating, often exchanging positions and giving Everton's back three several headaches.
The way Mourinho has utilised his three substitutes is also a remarkable change from his previous days at Chelsea. United took narrow 1-0 and 2-0 leads into the final ten minutes in each of their four wins this season. Typically, the Mourinho of old would have thrown on a centre-back to shut down the defence and see out the game to the end, typically accompanied by lots of time wasting.
But at United, he has chosen to bring on a winger, often Martial. The Frenchman's pace and energy have proven to be too much for the tired legs of opposition defenders, and he has used it to good effect so far with three goals and an assist. The Red Devils have scored 9 of their 16 goals in the last ten minutes, a nostalgic throwback to "Fergie time".
One particular moment in the first half embodied the changes that Mourinho has introduced this season. When Everton cleared the ball into United's half following a Juan Mata free kick, the ball fell to Ashley Young. Facing De Gea, and with Rooney quickly closing him down, van Gaal's United would have almost certainly passed the ball back to the keeper. Instead, Young passed it to Valencia on his right, enabling him to exploit pockets of space down that flank.
And that is exactly what the Red Devils need right now. A willingness to take risks, to keep pushing forward even if they are leading, and the ability to punish opposition mistakes. With Lukaku having already scored five goals in the first five league games, United have a striker who will not show any mercy in front of goal.
Mkhitaryan, Mata and Rashford/Martial form a fluid attacking trio capable of tormenting defences for the whole 90 minutes. Matic, in the deeper midfield, is one of the best in the Premier League in his position, effectively breaking up play, and starting attacking moves from the back, apart from covering for Bailly or Jones.
Irrespective of whether United will win their 21st title this year, they will almost certainly score tons and tons of goals, and that is enough to please the fans for now.