Thursday’s entertaining 3-0 Europa League victory for Manchester United over St Etienne was another occasion where we saw more evidence of a brighter future for Jose Mourinho’s side.
United are still a work in progress and in transition under a new manager. Few will have sympathy for such an expensively assembled bunch, but they’re better going toe to toe with St Etienne rather than Paris Saint-Germain at this stage, with more opportunity to impress and improve.
Prematch headlines focused on the Pogba brothers and their mother Yeo wearing a half and half green and red shirt. Postmatch it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first hat trick in United colours, which boosted his goal tally to an incredible 23 goals in 35 games. He’s averaged a goal every 130 minutes in a United shirt and he’s got six assists, too. There are times when he does little in a match and that can frustrate English fans who want their forwards to chase and make runs … then he scores and all is forgiven.
Ibrahimovic has been an exceptional signing, especially as he didn’t cost a bean, but United’s future won’t be with the 35-year-old and his bountiful goals and quotes — sample, from Thursday: “Wherever I’ve gone I’ve won, I am like Indiana Jones” — but with the younger talents he’s helping to guide.
Anthony Martial again showed his superior talents. He frustrates his manager on a weekly basis and Mourinho was infuriated with him when an elaborate flick conceded possession which led to a St Etienne attack, but he’s a wonderful prospect. And he’s still only 21. Martial took a swerving shot on goal early on, he was always a threat and deserved his ovation when he was taken off for Ashley Young after 84 minutes.
Marcus Rashford is another who gets Mourinho’s tough love. The Mancunian came on as a substitute to make his 50th United appearance less than a year since scoring two on his debut in the Europa League. Almost immediately, he drove toward the French goal with a directness absent in Louis van Gaal’s side before setting up Ibrahimovic for his second.
Rashford is still a teenager and will still have bad games. Like Martial, there will be times when he’ll dislike his manager, just as young players could be vexed by Sir Alex Ferguson. But both players are being pushed because their manager wants the best from them. Their minimum requirement is maximum effort.
Mourinho sets the bar high and if he feels that players aren’t ready, they don’t feature in his plans, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw have found this season.
Growing pains are normal for Rashford, 19, and Martial, 21. Consistency will come with experience, as it will with Paul Pogba, whose shooting remains wayward to the point of erratic. When he finally finds his range — and he will — United will have another major asset.
The 3-0 scoreline flattered United. St Etienne’s football was almost as attractive as the green tracksuits they wore before the game started and almost as good as their fans, who put on such a show they made the efforts of most English fans appear pitiful in comparison. They’ll do the same in the steep sided cauldron of the Geoffroy-Guichard next Wednesday, but while United need to be cautious, they should be able to protect a 3-0 lead.
They have lost by more than that scoreline only once this season and St Etienne aren’t as good as Chelsea. The three-goal cushion will also allow Mourinho some space for changes. He’ll be able to play Sergio Romero in goal again and make use of Young, Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini before a big game at Wembley four days later.
United’s excellent form in the cups continues and bodes well for Blackburn Rovers away in the FA Cup on Sunday and the EFL Cup final vs. Southampton the following week. Mourinho’s men have played 15 cup games this season, winning 12. None of those games have been drawn, with United far more decisive, especially at Old Trafford where they have scored four on five occasions. In the Europa League at home, they have won all four games, scoring 12 and conceding only once. That’s the type of form which could take them to a May 24 final In Sweden.
There are comparisons to be drawn with the team of the 1990-91 season. They were the FA Cup holders on the way to a sixth-place league finish, a final place in the League Cup and victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. A great side was coming together and would finish second the following season and champions the one after that.
There are also parallels with 2005-06. Then, young forwards Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were maturing into being among the finest in the world, but they weren’t quite there. Like Martial and Rashford, they were both being played out of position in wider berths when they wanted to be in the more central role occupied by Ruud van Nistelrooy, but they’d get their chances in time. The wily Dutchman was clinical in front of goal, just as Ibrahimovic is now.
Another League Cup win was the only trophy for that season’s efforts as United finished second in the league, eight points behind Chelsea. But Ferguson’s side would be English champions the following season and European and world champions the season after that.
Mourinho will strengthen again in the summer, but the side is already settling, the squad already deep. There will be further frustrations, for the manager knows that he’s still behind some of his English rivals, let alone European foes.
The idea of him being an instant fix was fanciful, yet United remain in three cup competitions having already won the Community Shield. The current league form gives more encouragement, too, though attention at present is firmly elsewhere.