F365 Says: Time approaching for United to up their game

Ian Watson

Another four-goal haul saw Manchester United move to the top of the table as Jose Mourinho’s machine continued to brush aside their early-season opponents. The Red Devils have taken 19 points from the 21 available, netted 21 goals and only Eric Choupo-Moting has breached their defence – none of their Premier League starts has ever been better.

But it is hard to shake the feeling that there is still much more to come from this team. Harsh though it may be to reflect upon such form and conclude that they can improve, Mourinho will be doing exactly that. And when the big tests come, United must do better.

The 4-0 win over Crystal Palace was as comfortable as the scoreline suggests. But United were never required to climb above second gear, and nor did they.

Mourinho’s men have scored four goals in two-thirds of their nine matches in all competitions so far this season, but such prolific form in attack has not always told the story of the challenges they have faced. The 4-0 win over Everton at Old Trafford was by no means as impressive as the scoreline reads, while last week at Southampton, Mourinho admitted that the most impressive aspect of United’s slender victory was their “pragmatism”.

This is no criticism of Mourinho’s side. Winning while keeping plenty in reserve is a very ominous sign for the rest of the Premier League. And the last three victories have come without their best player.

Mourinho said on Friday that Paul Pogba’s injury was in the ”long-term bracket”, though he also told the press that Phil Jones would miss Palace’s visit. Jones lined up, however, and while Marouane Fellaini scored twice as Pogba’s stand-in, the Red Devils certainly miss the Frenchman’s spark and creativity from the heart of the midfield.

Fellaini and Nemanja Matic form a far less dynamic partnership, and Palace were prepared to sit back and focus on suffocating Henrikh Mkhitaryan, which they achieved. Fellaini, for all his strengths, does not drive at opponents and drag them out of shape in the same way Pogba does, or indees Ander Herrera. The fact that Fellaini got the nod again to face the division’s worst team should be a worry for the Spaniard, despite his insistence that he is satisifed with a reduced role from last season.

Ahead of them, Romelu Lukaku, who was quiet against Palace having passed a late fitness test to participate, netted his 11th goal in 10 matches, while the battle between Rashford and Anthony Martial for the left-wing spot is a joy for United fans to witness. Mkhitaryan has gone off the boil, however. Having started the season with five assists and a goal in his opening three Premier League games, he hasn’t laid on another since. In that four-game period, the Armenian, according to Opta, has created only one big chance.

Perhaps Palace’s focus on Mkhitaryan distracted them from other threats. All four United goals originated wide on the right, with the Eagles’ plan of defending narrowly failing to reap any dividends.

Ray Lewington, Roy Hodgson’s trusted assistant, may have been Palace’s busiest body. Rarely did he retreat from the technical area, consistently urging Palace to stay narrow, all the while talking makeshift lone striker Bakary Sako through his first start for 48 Premier League matches.

Hodgson’s plot was not a sophisticated one – it would be lost on these Palace players if it was. Having been working on the plan since before their last trip to Manchester a week ago, all it really required from the Palace players was discipline and concentration.

That was too much to ask. Barely two and a half minutes had passed before Joel Ward lost the plot, losing ground to Rashford before giving up his dignity too when he bought the England forward’s dummy to allow him a clear path into the box. Rashford teed up Juan Mata and Hodgson’s plan for an unlikely first point or three of the season was scuppered before he had settled into his seat.

The right-back area was where United hurt Palace for the second and third, with Ashley Young making mugs of Andros Townsend and then Luka Milivojevic. The United left-back’s devilish inswinging cross found Fellaini at the far post 10 minutes before half-time, while the Belgian glanced in Rashford’s free-kick to put the hosts out of sight. Substitutes Herrera and Martial then combined to set up Lukaku for United’s 10th goal to arrive in the final 10 minutes.

Everyone got exactly what they expected at Old Trafford ahead of the international break. But when United’s stars return from national service, they face far bigger challenges than any they have taken on yet this term. A fortnight separates a trip to Liverpool and the visit of Tottenham, with away games at Benfica, Huddersfield and Swansea sandwiched in between. United have enjoyed a very comfortable passage through August and September, but October will provide a far sterner test of their credentials. Mourinho’s men must show they can shift up through the gears accordingly.

Ian Watson