It had only been six days. Six days since Manchester United had been hopelessly outclassed. Six days since rain peppered the hood of Paul Pogba’s raincoat, the $100 million man sinking further into an Old Trafford dugout chair, his unrivaled playmaking apparently of no use to an arrogant, beleaguered manager in need of a goal or two to prolong the inevitable.
It had been six days since Jose Mourinho’s final straw when United arrived at Cardiff City on Saturday. Four days since he finally got the sack. And it was neither surprising nor coincidental that the United that spanked Cardiff 5-1 felt like a different Manchester United.
Looked like a different Manchester United.
Was a different Manchester United.
United’s romp a referendum on Mourinho
It can be dangerously convenient to equate a coach’s firing to a caffeine-like jolt — to conclude that his shortcomings were the primary cause of an immediate turnaround. Oftentimes a “new manager bump” is merely a reversion to the norm, after a poor, job-costing run that was below it.
In this case, had United traveled to Cardiff on Saturday with a chronically grumpy Mourinho riding shotgun, it still likely would have won. The postgame narrative would have been nondescript. Minimum expectations would have been met. Problems would have persisted. And some, to be clear, still do. United hasn’t instantly become one of the Premier League’s four best teams. There will be tougher tests. There is more work to do.
But the freedom with which United flowed; the ease of the combination play; the confidence; the joy. It is impossible to view it all as coincidental. It is impossible to not view Saturday as a referendum on Jose’s cancerous negativity.
Interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did what most rational human beings would. He started Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. He allowed United’s exciting young talent to, well, be exciting. It wasn’t rocket science. The result was aesthetically intoxicating. The third of five United goals was rhythmic and gorgeous.
It was also as un-Mourinho-like as could be. Everything about the performance was. Pogba tapped no-look, one-touch passes. Attackers connected in threes all evening, the third runners collecting balls in stride, dancing toward or into the penalty area … all of which they rarely did under The Stale One.
And they played with relief, as if finally healthy again after a crippling sickness. Rashford belted the opener with conviction.
Ander Herrera’s second required a large slice of luck. But United deserved it. The Red Devils scored three goals in a first half away from home for the first time in over a year. Lingard won and converted the fourth with a proactive charge into the area:
And he finished off another wonderful move for the fifth:
The difference between the United of yesterday and the United of today is not as simple as Mourinho gone, players having fun, team good again. But it’s not exceedingly more complicated than that either.
Mourinho, by the end of his comically dreadful reign, had become the worst manager in the Premier League. Literally the worst. He was equal parts incompetent tactician and curmudgeon. He had drained one of the world’s most talented and expensive squads of its creativity, dragged it down into mid-table, sapped its soul. The results were bad. The underlying numbers were worse, and foretold of a rock bottom not yet reached.
Mourinho should have been sacked in August. United’s own institutional incompetence let him fester, and likely ruin yet another post-Fergie season as he did. But the shackles are now loose. The cloud lifted. The metaphors endless. United, finally, is free from Mourinho’s drudgery. Better days are ahead. And Saturday was the first of many data points that will suggest Mourinho was indeed the biggest, most damaging problem of all.
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