Here’s the lesson of the past two Premier League seasons at Manchester United: When you have hundreds of millions of pounds to spend, it’s not that hard to keep possession, complete eight out of 10 passes, and protect your keeper from opposing shots. The hard part is doing all that and playing any kind of soccer that’s worth waking up for.
Despite all the possession and all the passing under Louis van Gaal last season, United created fewer chances per game than Newcastle (who were relegated after the season) and slightly more than Bournemouth (who were promoted before it), and took fewer shots than all but five teams. They were boring as hell.
Two games into José Mourinho’s tenure, none of that has changed, except for the boring part. If you can afford to drop over £90 million in transfer fees and £20 million in yearly contracts to stand Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba on top of a relegation-quality attack, can you suddenly score enough goals to win the Premier League? Mourinho is hoping the answer is “yes.”
They have won both of their two matches this season, and scored five goals, but they’ve also created the same number of chances and have taken about the same number of shots per game as last season. Two games in, United is attacking with the same broad strokes, only they’re doing it with two of the best attacking players in the world. Prior to being handed a goal by Simon Francis, United were played toe-to-toe by Bournemouth. And despite the two-goal win, the chances they created weren’t noticeably better than Southampton’s. What was noticeably better was Zlatan jumping over a building and turning a fluttering cross into a goal ….
… and Pogba dream-shaking his way through an aggressive Southampton press and turning it into a counterattack for United:
Last season, United could never create advantageous attacking situations. Much of that seemed to come down to a philosophical choice by van Gaal: If we don’t try anything ambitious with the ball, we won’t lose it, and if we don’t lose it, we won’t get scored on. But in Pogba and Ibrahimovic, they now have two players who can turn something neutral (a floated ball toward the top of the box) or something negative (being pressed in your own half with your back to your own goal) into a legitimate attacking chance. And those two can do it without too much help.
Yet, while Lionel Messi is an actual alien who finishes his chances at a much higher rate than any human, most other top strikers score at such a high clip because they’re both constantly getting on the end of and creating high-quality chances for themselves — not because they’re better at converting. Since 2010, Zlatan’s scored 118 goals to 110 expected goals, so he probably won’t keep pulling a goal out of thin air every weekend, but c’mon …
Players can get hot for 38 games, and there are worse strategies than maintaining an already-very-good defense and hoping that Ibrahimovic keeps finishing at an absurd clip; with three goals on five shots, he’s scoring more often than Rudy Gobert makes free throws. And even if he doesn’t keep up this pace, maybe the presence of Pogba (and eventually Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the €42 million signing who Mourinho has stapled to the bench) will start to open up better chances, if not more of them. Through two games, United haven’t shot much, but they’re among the league leaders in shots on target, and their shots-on-target differential (the number they take minus the number they concede) is the best in the league.
We haven’t seen United go behind and have to play against a defensive shell or an opposing counterattack. We don’t know what’ll happen once the league’s collection of managerial wizards starts keying in on United’s superstars. And despite a relatively healthy career, who knows if a 34-year-old Ibrahimovic can stay on the field for a full, winter-break–less season. But thanks to Pogba and Co., the guys who were lead stars for last year’s team — Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford — now become a near-overqualified supporting cast.
“For me,” Mourinho said a year ago, “football is collective. The individual is welcome if you want to make our group better. But you have to work for us, not we have to work for you.”
Right now, this United haven’t really played that much better than last season’s United, but with Pogba and Ibrahimovic on the field, the same muted performances feel like a roar. There’s a sense of possibility that hasn’t existed at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Can Ibrahimovic and Pogba carry last year’s team four spots up the table and achieve the Swede’s title vision? A bunch of bounces will still have to go their way for that happen, but at least it’ll be worth watching them try.