Paul Pogba scored four minutes from time to cap a wonderful comeback as Manchester United scored twice in ninety seconds to beat Middlesbrough 2-1 at Old Trafford.
On an afternoon that looked to be heading in the wrong direction for United, Anthony Martial equalised in the 85th minute, before Pogba claimed all three points for Mourinho with a wonderful header in front of a jubilant Stretford End.
Jose Mourinho made a number of changes to his starting line-up ahead of two matches in three days. Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly replaced Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones in central defence, Marouane Fellaini started ahead of Michael Carrick in midfield and Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were back in the team after impressing from the bench in United’s win over Sunderland on Boxing Day.
Another home game, another dominant Manchester United performance. From start to finish, United were in control of this game and created chances throughout. They struggled to find the finishing touch to take the lead in the opening period though. For all their dominance, there wasn’t quite the same intensity as in recent weeks, a lot of which had to do with the composition of the Manchester United midfield.
With Marouane Fellaini playing ahead of Michael Carrick, United lost a lot of the rhythm created by the Pogba/Carrick/Herrera axis. Those three would work together, Carrick in a deeper position with Herrera and Pogba either side, and they would control the tempo of the match. Fellaini disrupted that rhythm with his unusual positioning in open play. Playing almost on the shoulder of the last defender, it was as if the Belgian was waiting for an aerial pass that was never arriving. He isolated himself through a lack of positional awareness and was a peripheral figure in the first half, attempting fewer passes than his midfield colleagues.
Herrera and Pogba were at their influential best in Fellaini’s absence, controlling the tempo of the game as a pair. They completed 90% of their passes in the first half and were instrumental in United’s dominance. Wave after wave of attack in match that was beginning to resemble a training exercise, created by United’s midfield combination.
The graphic above highlights United’s attempts to get the ball wide to circumvent the narrow defensive block created by Middlesbrough. With so many bodies in blue defending central areas, all the space was out wide, particularly on the left-hand side where Anthony Martial was back to his best and posing the biggest threat for the home side.
Martial's game by numbers vs. Middlesbrough:
1 post hit
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) December 31, 2016
Every time the ball was played into the Frenchman he was positive and direct, showed explosive pace and had the beating of Calum Chambers all afternoon. As well as attempting nine take-ons (a third of United’s collective total) Martial added end product to his raw speed and trickery. He hit the post with a wonderful effort in the first half, forced a good save from Victor Valdes in the second and provided the cross from which Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored shortly before half-time, only for it to be (incorrectly) ruled out for dangerous play. After such a fine performance it was only right that Martial scored the equaliser that set United on their way to victory in the final 10 minutes.
The final twenty minutes was when it all changed. Once Middlesbrough took the lead, Mourinho knew he had to act. Turning to Marcus Rashford, the United manager withdrew Chris Smalling and threw caution to the wind. Three at the back, all of his attacking options on the field, United were going for broke. The result was everything United deserved.
United went 1 vs 1 at the back, push Rojo and Valencia forward in wide areas and bombarded the Middlesbrough penalty area. The intelligent thing about Manchester United’s performance in that final 20 minutes was how patient they were. They didn’t launch the ball forward, it wasn’t floated into the penalty area too often, there were no aimless long passes that were played in the hope that something would fall their way, they passed and probed and kept possession and tried to penetrate with the pace of Rashford and Martial as often as they could. This was no lucky turnaround. This was a very deliberate, very mature performance from a Manchester United side that would not give in.
Once again, the graphic above shows just how dominant Manchester United were. The vast majority of their passes in that final period were in the Boro half and again it was wide areas that were seen as the way through. As well as the two goals, United created seven chances and had nine shots as they searched for an equaliser. They crossed the ball 16 times and completed 86% of their passes too. As dramatic and emotional as Pogba’s winner proved to be, it was merely a continuation of the good work we’ve seen from Mourinho’s side in the last few weeks. That’s five league wins on the bounce now. Going into the new year, the momentum is well and truly with Manchester United.