Manchester United moved above Arsenal into fifth position in the Premier League after a difficult 3-1 victory against Middlesbrough.
A tired United were holding on against a resilient Boro side until Antonio Valencia scored late on to seal an important victory. Goals from Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard gave United a comfortable lead but the home side rallied and made it a nervous ending for Mourinho when Rudy Gestede fired home with thirteen minutes to go.
Jose Mourinho made seven changes to the side that beat Rostov on Thursday night. In a system that could flexibly rotate between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick all came into the team after missing out in midweek. There were also recalls for David de Gea, Ashley Young and Phil Jones.
The opening fifteen minutes was particularly tough for Manchester United. After sacking Aitor Karanaka, Boro started the match with a point to prove and dominated the early stages. They had 57% of possession in that first 15 minutes and really made life difficult for Manchester United. In that same period, Mourinho’s side could only complete 37 passes. Despite being under the cosh, United did create one excellent chance. Jesse Lingard found Marcus Rashford and the England striker forced a good save from Valdes. Even early on it was clear that United would be a threat on the counter attack.
After that initial period of Middlesbrough dominance, United were able to get a foot on the ball and they grew into the game. Whether it was 3-5-2 without the ball or 4-2-3-1 with the ball, it was always Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick as the central midfield partnership. With Lingard, Mata and Rashford in front of them, the way they used the ball was going to be instrumental in United’s success in this game.
Marouane Fellaini has received a lot of criticism this season, most of which has been justified, for his performances in a United shirt. Today, replacing Paul Pogba, Fellaini was given increased responsibility in a pivotal role. Not only did he score United’s opening goal with a fine header, his use of possession was intelligent throughout the match. Knowing he had the pace of Rashford, Lingard and Valencia on the counter attack, with Juan Mata capable of finding that killer final pass, Fellaini did what he had to do. He received the ball in tight areas, didn’t give it away too often and was more willing than usual to find a forward pass. He was disciplined and responsible with the ball and did just enough to release United’s more creative players in attacking situations. A professional performance from the much-maligned Belgian.
Fellaini and Carrick were the base on which all United’s counter attacks were formed but Jesse Lingard was the key that unlocked the Middlesbrough door. The intelligence of his movement, the timing of his runs and his selection of passes in the final third were all excellent. It was Lingard’s pass that found Rashford for his early chance and the England international was a thorn in Boro’s side all afternoon.
Drifting in from the left-hand side, Lingard found space between the Middlesbrough midfield and back four and offered the speed in transition that took Manchester United from defence to attack time and time again. In the build up to United’s first goal it was Lingard’s movement both with and without the ball that created the space for Ashley Young down the left and it was the pass from Lingard that allowed Young to cross for Fellaini. The academy graduate was instrumental for Manchester United today. Well deserving of his man of the match award.
Middlesbrough’s performance was enigmatic today. They dominated the first fifteen and the final twenty minutes of this match but were lost in between. After Lingard’s sensational strike in the 62nd minute, caretaker manager Steve Agnew made the decision to introduce Rudy Gestede and play with two strikers. What followed was a change of style and a change of attitude among the Middlesbrough players that nearly dragged them level from a two goal deficit.
In the final twenty minutes Middlesbrough started to play the ball long and utilise the strength of Gestede and Negredo. With two strikers to play off one another, Middlesbrough could get the ball forward and keep it there, threatening in the final third for longer periods, creating intensified periods of pressure. The goal, Middlesbrough’s first in the league since January, was scored from a Negredo knockdown that was finished by Rudy Gestede (following an awful mistake by Chris Smalling). United struggled to get out of their own defensive third and as the match wore on, Boro simplified their build up play until they were launching the ball into the penalty area repeatedly, hoping for an opportunity to equalise.
Between the 70th minute and the final whistle Middlesbrough crossed the ball into the Manchester United penalty area 16 times. It was an aerial battle between Rudy Gestede and Alvaro Negredo in red and Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly in blue. Fortunately for Manchester United they were able to hold on for an important three points. Many will compliment this Middlesbrough side for their resilience and fighting spirit but most people should point the finger and Jose Mourinho. Whether the players were tired or not, the decision to introduce defensive substitutes so early was a mistake. Inviting that kind of pressure against such a physical team was only going to lead to attempts on David de Gea’s goal. There is an argument to suggest United were lucky to only concede once.
After victory at the Riverside, Manchester United are in fifth position. Unbeaten in the league since October, they are now three points behind Liverpool in that all important fourth place with a game in hand. As Mourinho said after the match, they still have two doors to the Champions League that are open. That has to be the objective between now and May; qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition once again.