It is rare that the team selection prompts the most interest in a football match, and rarer still that such a thing could be intended as a compliment to what followed. But 6.45pm on Wednesday brought significant fervour, as Jose Mourinho carried out his temporary cull and gave those on the fringes of his squad the opportunity to play for their place in an FA Cup semi-final line-up. Manchester United travelled down to the Vitality Stadium looking for exactly that. Too often this season their attacking play had been stymied and sluggish. Changes were intended to provoke change.
Mourinho made seven alterations to his team and yet still started Paul Pogba; most believed that he would be the highest-profile casualty. Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw started as a full-back pairing for the first time in more than a year, while Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial started together for the first time since EFL Cup defeat at Bristol City.
With Marouane Fellaini also present in central midfield, his first league start since September, this resembled a team of the almost damned. At least six of those starting have been linked with moves away from Old Trafford in the summer, evidence of the gaping chasm to Manchester City at the top of the league and Mourinho’s insistence that he has been let down by several key performers. Was this the last attempt at salvation, or the shop window?
Whatever the answer to that question, this was an evening when United had little to gain. Beating Bournemouth days after the title had been lost with a miserable home defeat to West Brom was nothing more than an exercise in after the Lord Mayor’s sh*tshow. Mourinho is a man to whom self-preservation comes easy, but even he knows that moving onto the bullish front foot before FA Cup final victory on May 19 would be foolish.
Manchester United’s manager stuck to that script, remaining glum on the bench throughout a regulation victory. Here was the angry parent, unimpressed by their children behaving well immediately after they have been screamed at. ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again, so you need to think about if you really mean it.’
The same was true of United’s highest performers at Bournemouth. Pogba was the game’s best player, generally tidy – if a little understated – in the first half but far more dynamic after the break as new life was breathed into his legs. Again, there is a great deal more ground to cover – literally and metaphorically – to rebuild the reputation. Now go and do the same against Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama – if he’s given the chance.
Steve Cook was booked for scything Pogba down after an hour, and was vindicated in that decision eight minutes later when the Frenchman surged forward and played in substitute Romelu Lukaku to seal victory. Lukaku was one player omitted from Mourinho’s team, but for reasons of rest rather than punishment. This was his 27th Manchester United goal of the season.
There was promising movement from Rashford, Martial and Jesse Lingard too, interchanging as a fluid front three in the first half. Evidence of this fluidity lay in the fact that eight different Manchester United players created a goalscoring chance. Rashford had the most shots of any United player; Martial created the most chances. Glimpses of light, but nobody is basking or bathing just yet.
“The players were good,” Mourinho said after the match, with barely visible contentment. “Good team performance, professional. Desire to play, to have the ball, to score. Good individual performances as well as collective.” This was an evening where “good” was the strongest available compliment.
Still, when there is little to win and everything else to lose, winning well is the only acceptable answer. Mourinho needed to get a reaction from those selected to start on Wednesday, not just to address Sunday’s tedium but to inspire competition for places. You can’t say you’re dropping players only to watch those who step in fail to perform. That looks like you rather than they are the problem.
In that sense, Mourinho will be reassured. But he knows more than most that Manchester United’s most frustrating trick is to let momentum and goodwill quickly slip away. You don’t play catch-up to Manchester City by taking two steps forward and another back. To Wembley, and a chance to really make amends.