Paul Pogba scored twice as Manchester United went joint top of their Europa League group with a comfortable 4-1 win over Fenerbahce.
Jose Mourinho made seven changes to the team that drew with Liverpool on Monday night, but was still able to field a very strong starting XI. Michael Carrick and Matteo Darmian were given rare starts, while Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial both started for the first time in a month.
The game was over by half-time. Manchester United were 3-0 up and absolutely cruising. They performed with confidence, pace and slick combination play that has been missing on plenty of occasions this season.
The return to 4-2-3-1 helped Manchester United. Juan Mata came into the team as the no.10 and they certainly found better balance in this shape. Everything went through Mata and United gained significant control of the game in the opposition’s half of the pitch.
Not only was Mata influential on the ball, it was his movement that was so important this evening. He dropped deep, moved left, moved right and constantly looked to find space. Looking at where he made his passes and the types of passes that he made, Mata ran the show. He dictated the tempo of the game in Fenerbahce’s half. He made the first goal with his movement to win the penalty and the second with a fabulous pass to Martial. Suffice to say, United looked a better side with him in it.
Mata’s brilliance as an advanced creative player only serves to highlight the importance of Michael Carrick in this team. If Mata was dictating the tempo of the game in the offensive third, it was Michael Carrick who controlled the game in the middle third and allowed United’s forward players to play with the freedom that spawned such expansive football.
Carrick created the opportunity for the first penalty with a wonderful pass to Juan Mata and spent the rest of the game quietly patrolling the middle of the park. He completed 96% of his passes and once again he was United’s metronome. He provides Manchester United with a balance in midfield that they do not get from any of their other options in that position. His calmness and assuredness in as the deep-lying midfield pivot gave licence to Paul Pogba to get forward, which he did to great effect for United’s third goal, while Carrick’s range of passing consistently gave United meaningful possession in the opposition half from which the likes of Pogba, Mata and Lingard could create opportunities to score. Breaking it down like this makes it all seem so simple, but Carrick has always had a way of making things look particularly easy.
Aside from individual performances, the biggest change in Manchester United’s approach was in their pressing. Not only was it missing against Liverpool, it has been missing on plenty of occasions this season and United have certainly lacked intensity in many games this season. Tonight was different though. To begin with, there was more energy in the team that was selected. Martial, Lingard, Pogba, Shaw and Darmian are all players with speed and stamina, while Juan Mata defied his own personal expectations to contribute to the pressing effort. United led from the front; Rooney, Martial, Lingard and Mata pressed high and prevented Fenerbahce from playing out from the back, but critically, they were supported in their endeavours by Paul Pogba in central positions and Luke Shaw and Darmian out wide, cutting off every passing option and it allowed United to win the ball back quickly and repeatedly.
This oppressive pressing style was typified by Manchester United’s fourth goal. United won the ball back twice in this passage of play, in Fenerbahce’s half on both occasions, and they were able to transition into offensive patterns of play immediately. It was good build-up and a fantastic strike from Jesse Lingard, but the hard work was done well before that and United were rewarded with an excellent team goal.
This was not a revolutionary performance from Manchester United. Beating Fenerbahce 4-1 will not drastically alter their season or define how successful they will be. They performed well and showed important signs of improvement though. This can be a platform that allows them to go on to bigger and better things. Perhaps it is symbolic that Robin van Persie returned tonight and scored one final Old Trafford goal. Perhaps United can now fully embrace the Jose Mourinho era. For all its flaws, all its virtue, all its idiosyncrasies. This is his team. Now they have to prove that team is good enough to represent Manchester United.