In the lead-up to the opening weekend of the Premier League season, José Mourinho sounded like he’d sniffed one too many packets of smelling salts.
"I look forward to the season with optimism, with enthusiasm. I want to play," said the Manchester United manager. "I want to play West Ham on Sunday, a difficult match. Then I want to go to Swansea, a difficult match. Then I want the Champions League to start.”
He went on: "I want, I want! ... I'm on fire. ... But I will behave on the touchline!"
Now we know why he was burning up.
On Friday, Arsenal’s purposefully patchwork defense barely escaped with a come-from-behind 4-3 home win over Leicester City. On Saturday morning, Liverpool revealed that they don’t have time to practice set pieces, en route to a haphazard 3-3 draw with Watford. Then Chelsea took note of those hijinks, said “Hold my beer,” and lost 3-2 at home to Burnley. Later on Saturday, Manchester City took over 70 minutes to score against newly promoted Brighton, and on Sunday, Tottenham needed Jonjo Shelvey’s self-destructive tendencies to save them.
Then came the final game of the weekend. Rather than continuing the narrative of the rest of the top six, Manchester United swatted West Ham into the Atlantic Ocean, winning 4-0. While everyone else struggled to get out of the gate, Mourinho’s side played to its potential in Week 1.
xG map for Manchester United - West Ham. This was just comprehensive. pic.twitter.com/D0sQxtHB6m— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 13, 2017
Romelu Lukaku immediately added the kind of forward momentum that was missing from last year’s attack, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic led the line …
GOAL: United 1-0 West Ham.— Man Utd Goals (@UtdGoals) August 13, 2017
… and then put the game away with a header in the 53rd minute. If you’re still wondering why someone with a semi-inconsistent first touch is worth €85 million, watch this match again. And if you’re still on the fence about Paul Pogba, I suggest you do the same. From a holding midfield role, Pogba completed more forward passes into the final third than anyone on the field, played three through balls, dribbled six defenders, set up two key passes for his teammates, and turned Old Trafford into a five-a-side field:
The 24-year-old Frenchman didn’t contribute much defensively—at all, even: zero tackles or interceptions—but he now has Nemanja Matic next to him, much to Antonio Conte’s chagrin. With Matic doing his best Gandalf impression, the central zone in front of United’s box was off limits to West Ham. Matic had only two tackles and an interception, but served more as an active deterrent than a reactive custodian forced to clean up the mess. Unlike the defensive midfielders in Mourinho’s first United season, Matic was also able to progress the ball upfield, completing more dribbles (seven) than anyone on either side.
With that trio firing on all cylinders, it almost doesn’t matter who else is part of United’s spine; those three vertebrae are strong enough on their own. But beyond them, Mourinho’s lineup showed balance in a way that none of the other top six contenders could claim. Attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan created six chances and was a through-ball machine. Wide midfielders Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford complemented each other well: The former possesses, the latter pushes play forward. The defense is still questionable—that’ll likely be the case as long as Phil Jones is on the field—but the questions, one week in, aren’t as pointed as they are elsewhere among the teams that expect to be near the top of the table. If the attack and the midfield is flying, you’d bet on Mourinho being able to figure out the rest.
There’s still a long, long way to go, and plenty will change. This, after all, was a home game against a mediocre and shorthanded West Ham team. We won’t know United’s potential until they play another top-six side and we see if Mourinho is willing to take off the emergency break and play for the win, rather than the draw, as he did too often last year.
The transfer window is open for another two-plus weeks, and the futures of Chelsea and Co. can shift. But right now, United already knows where they’re going. And if they get there, the touchline isn’t gonna hold Mourinho back.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Brighton as “newly relegated.” They were promoted this season.