United: Ghosts of past, present and future

Date published: Sunday 7th August 2016 6:30

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He was never going to accept being an afterthought. Whatever your views of the Community Shield, Sunday’s final brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s competitive debut for Manchester United. A couple of hours after the club announced the worst-kept secret in world football, Old Trafford’s new God assured himself a share of the headlines alongside Paul Pogba.

Normality had finally been restored. The day began with confirmation that United were on the verge of taking a hammer to the world-record transfer fee, and it ended with a second piece of Wembley silverware in three months. Jose Mourinho has not quite led them back atop the perch yet, but the first tentative steps have been taken.

They were always going to be the most difficult. Against Leicester on Sunday, United clearly still carried the scars of their previous relationship. Louis van Gaal has left an indelible mark on this squad, and at times it was as if he had never left.

But Mourinho is the perfect rebound to banish those Dutch demons, and the few touches he has been able to apply to this squad eventually settled matters. Eric Bailly was a worthy man-of-the-match in a delightfully suicidal but imposing central-defensive performance, while Ibrahimovic did what he does best.

There were negatives. After a summer in which we have been told Wayne Rooney still has it, the captain provided ample evidence to the contrary with each poor first touch, misdirected pass and off-key shot. His role as long-term No 10 must be under serious doubt. Anthony Martial looked jaded and marginalised on the wing, while Ibrahimovic – goal aside – struggled for the most part. And Marouane Fellaini is still a thing.

“My teams are different to Mr Van Gaal’s teams,” said Mourinho earlier this week. “It would be easier for me to have 20 new players and start from zero. For two years, they had some principles of play that are not mine – clearly, they are not. Of course, after two years of work, there are things in their brain that are automatic, and that is difficult to change. But we are working hard and the players are trying everything.”

‘Adapt’ was the buzzword. Two years of plodding, methodical football cannot be erased in a matter of weeks. Rooney will still aim to take a (bad) touch before every shot; Antonio Valencia will often forget to push forward at right-back to provide width; Fellaini and Daley Blind are bound to look for a short pass as opposed to simply clearing the ball to safety. Mourinho is under no illusions that United’s deep Van Gaal cleanse will take time.

There are signs of positivity, of course. Bailly, as mentioned, was excellent, like an enthusiastic dog unaware of its speed, strength and power. Jesse Lingard continued his love affair with Wembley with a sumptuous solo goal, and the 23-year-old continues to defy his critics – many of whom reside on this website. Luke Shaw’s return was a welcome one, and Blind and Michael Carrick were their assured selves throughout.

Regardless of the standard of the Community Shield, Rio Ferdinand encapsulated its importance pre-match. He spoke of how vital it was to breed a winning mentality from the beginning, how players have an unbridled desire to win trophies. This is not quite the Emirates Cup, after all.

Sunday, August 7 2016 will go down as a crucial moment in the modern history of Manchester United Football Club. The future promises Pogba, trophies and a club pulling in the same direction. The present remains a precocious and cautious one. Considering their recent troubled past, it is no wonder. It will take time to remove the stench of Van Gaal before Mourinho can build a club in his own twisted image.

 

Matt Stead

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