Friday’s 2-1 win vs. Leicester was exactly what was needed from Manchester United after a summer of discord, if not quite discontent.
Three points were secured by virtue of a winning start that featured goals from Paul Pogba and a career first for Luke Shaw. There were also impressive first Premier League starts for Andreas Pereira and Fred, both of whom were as tenacious as they were tidy,
Eric Bailly, fully rested from the summer, played well and displayed his repertoire of crowd-pleasing, flying tackles. If he stays fit, he could be the next Nemanja Vidic; if he remains injury-prone, however, United will keep looking to buy central defenders. Friday was the first time Bailly and Victor Lindelof have started a league game together, and the partnership showed signs of promise.
And David De Gea produced two excellent saves, although there’s nothing new there. He needed to be sharp against a Leicester side that rightly command respect and praise. Claude Puel’s outfit are tactically smart, unafraid to attack and should finish in the top 10 again this season.
Off the pitch, there was the debut of a new vocal section — full of young fans — behind the corner flag in front of Old Trafford’s J Stand. The ground’s atmosphere has long needed a boost, and it is a positive that the club are engaging with supporters to make that happen, after decades of closing their ears and altering the stadium’s configuration with changes that only made things worse.
Ahead of the game, Pogba dominated discussion. The World Cup winner only returned from his post-Russia holiday on Monday and the week was dominated by talk about his future, but when it came to game time, not only did he start, but he was made captain. Three minutes in, he opened the scoring with a penalty after persuading Alexis Sanchez that he would take it.
When Mourinho described Pogba as “a monster” after the game, it was firmly a compliment and justified his call as to who would wear the armband. United’s No. 6 has long wanted to be captain, and whether the manager likes it or not, he is the most important player in the dressing room. Mourinho feels pressure to play him from the club that, two years ago, made Pogba the most expensive player in the world.
It is not as direct as at Real Madrid, where the club president Florentino Perez has insisted that certain players start, but Mourinho is under pressure to make Pogba work out at Old Trafford. The same is true of Shaw and Anthony Martial.
While Martial was an unused substitute vs. Leicester, Pogba and Shaw started and were United’s two best players. If Shaw can play as well as he talks, then he has a chance to establish himself as the regular left-back; his manager and most fans would love that to happen.
As for the French pair of Pogba and Martial, United would rather install sky blue seats at Old Trafford than sell either this month — that stance has been true all year — but the duo are the players who have had the most issues with Mourinho.
Maybe harmony can break out and United can keep on winning. They certainly have the players capable of performing better than they did last season. The upcoming fixture list could be more challenging, but a backlash is waiting to happen against Mourinho if this season does not start well.
He has his arguments and several are justified, but so are some of the points from a club that has backed him since he took over. Mourinho has the backing of the majority and his name was sung by the crowd several times on Friday. Once, the smartly-dressed Portuguese even showed a sign of appreciation.
For better or worse, Leicester have unwittingly been key opponents for new United new bosses in recent seasons. In September 2014, the Foxes came from behind to win a game 5-3; the result clipped the wings of Louis van Gaal’s side, who became less inclined to take risks.
Mourinho’s first game in charge was a 2-1 Community Shield win against then-champions Leicester in August 2016 and, six weeks later, he dropped out-of-form captain Wayne Rooney against the same opponents. Pogba scored that day as well and United won 4-1.
After the clubs’ latest meeting is the godsend of a nine-day gap before United visit Brighton on Aug. 19. For the many players who have not had a full preseason, it offers a chance to be close to their families and work on the lush fields of the Carrington training ground.
Next Sunday’s game will offer Mourinho’s men another chance to lay down a marker and it is to be hoped the performance is better than that of a 1-0 defeat at the end of last season, which was so woefully poor that it was disrespectful to United supporters who made the journey.
Those fans will travel tentatively next Sunday. They know issues remain and that one win will not mean too much when the relief from Friday calms down, but it was not a bad way to start the season.