For 75 minutes, it wasn’t quite as comprehensive; didn’t induce quite the same level of optimism; wasn’t nearly as dynamic. Not compared to last week. Not compared to a season-opening 4-0 win over West Ham.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it was ever so comprehensive; it was incredibly dynamic; it was exactly like last week; and it has only amplified the buzz that United might just be legitimate title contenders.
It was not simply the final result – 4-0 over Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. It was the manner in which it came about – reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s best teams over the years.
For 75 minutes, United was businesslike. The Red Devils struggled to break down a resolute and compact Swans defense for much of the afternoon. But they nabbed a scrappy goal late in the first half, shut up shop, and then devastated Swansea on the break during a breathtaking five-minute stretch late in the second.
Mourinho’s side, which featured an unchanged lineup and substitutions nearly identical to last weekend’s trouncing of West Ham, managed the game well. Eric Bailly, who put United ahead, was the best player on the pitch.
But his performance was much more than the goal. He and central defensive partner Phil Jones cleaned up everything at the back for United. They won first balls and second balls. They shut down a two-man Swansea forward line that didn’t get much support.
Then, once Swansea decided to lend support to the front two of Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham, United coped, maintained control, and then raced out on counterattacks. Romelu Lukaku finished coolly in the 80th minute after being set up by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Paul Pogba made it 3-0 two minutes later:
Anthony Martial, coming off the bench for the second consecutive week, added a fourth two minutes after that:
For the game’s first hour, United had trouble finding room to operate in the final third. Swansea sat in a 3-5-2 that more often resembled a 5-3-2. And the midfield three was a true block of three. Neither Tom Carroll nor Leroy Fer nor Roque Mesa ventured too far up the field. With no room to run in behind and no passing lanes into his feet, Lukaku was taken out of the game.
Swansea’s three center backs were impressive in the first half. They stepped to, and sometimes cut out, every ball United tried to squeeze into an attacker in between the Swansea midfield and defensive lines. But at least one of them was at fault on the goal that broke the deadlock.
Bailly broke to the near post as Juan Mata curled in a corner. As the ball sailed over his head, he was seemingly out of the play – more so than anybody else in the Swansea penalty box:
But he was the only one who followed up Pogba’s header.
Or perhaps one of only two. Swansea center back Federico Fernandez edged back toward his own goal line too, and the Argentine center back should have been in a position to beat Bailly to the ball:
His split second of indecisiveness, however, was costly. He committed the sin of waiting for his goalkeeper to pounce on the ball rather than just whacking it clear. Bailly took advantage.
In the second half, Mourinho introduced Marouane Fellaini and Martial for Mata and Marcus Rashford, just as he did last week. Fellaini’s presence pushed Pogba farther up the pitch, which allowed him to break for both the third and the fourth goal. Both were vintage Mourinho counterattacks.
The win moves United three points clear at the top of the league, at least momentarily. More importantly, it’s further evidence something about this Mourinho team is different from last year; different from the Louis Van Gaal years; different from the David Moyes years. It hasn’t just been six points from a possible six for United; it’s been a very promising start.