Jose Mourinho, Man United must build on rousing derby win at City
MANCHESTER, England -- It has taken almost five years for Manchester United to remember how they used to play under Sir Alex Ferguson, so it is perhaps appropriate that it all came flooding back during a 3-2 derby victory against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Only Jose Mourinho can legitimately answer whether it was by accident or design, but even if it needed the current manager to walk to the precipice of humiliation before the old United resurrected itself, the reality is that his players have taken a leaf out of the history books to offer a glimpse of the future, and there can be no going back now.
United have not finished above City in the Premier League since Ferguson retired in May 2013. It's been a slippery slope for the team since then, with David Moyes and then Louis van Gaal arguably doing more harm than good to the club's reputation for winning, attacking football. Mourinho arrived in the summer of 2016, almost as the club's last throw of the dice when it came to rebooting its winning brand, but while he delivered two trophies last season, the League Cup and Europa League, the entertainment value has been only marginally higher than under Moyes and Van Gaal.
Mourinho's United team has lacked the verve and determination of Ferguson's title-winning sides, but he has justifiably argued that he has had to rebuild an imbalanced squad.
His team has also been unfairly held up against Pep Guardiola's City side, a team whose foundations were being laid long before he arrived from Bayern Munich two summers ago. But Mourinho has spent big and recruited some top talent, which means the lack of progress from an entertainment point of view -- and also from the perspective of his team being competitors -- has increasingly become an issue this season.
The Champions League elimination against Sevilla last month, when the Spanish club punished United for their negative, cautious approach, brought the worst of Mourinho's ethos into sharp focus. Sevilla's win and United's insipid performance suggested that Mourinho had lost the ability to build teams capable of combining flair with durability. But the second half of United's 3-2 victory at Etihad was like a reawakening, both for Mourinho and the club.
United were so bad in the first half, when City raced 2-0 ahead and could have scored another three, that the second half threatened only to bring embarrassment and humiliation for the visitors. City had nine shots compared to none by United and completed 326 passes as opposed to 148 by Mourinho's team. United were so bad and so negative that they only mustered one touch in the City penalty area. But half-time changed everything, with Mourinho tearing into his players before sending them out for the second half.
"The manager didn't have to say much at half-time, as we knew ourselves as players it was a poor performance," said defender Chris Smalling. "He said that we didn't want to be the clowns standing there watching them get their title."
But why did it take United plumbing such depths for them to dig out such an impressive second-half display? The passion and determination that was lacking in the first half ultimately proved too much for City in the second period.
Mourinho's players pushed higher up the pitch, took more chances, were prepared to brave and ambitious. Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, who both opted for sideways passes in the first half, looked ahead of themselves after the break. Jesse Lingard burst forward as did Nemanja Matic, and the belief surged through United in a manner that it has not done since Ferguson vacated the stage.
Ferguson would often mockingly refer to the Etihad as the "Temple of Doom" during his reign in charge at Old Trafford -- a jibe directed at City's perennial ability to self-destruct -- but it has been more like a torture chamber for United in recent seasons. On Saturday, United found new life here and enjoyed the experience, earning a win that meant even more considering that it delayed City's plans for a title party.
The key now, though, is to ensure that this is a substantial building block for next season and a sustained title challenge, although Mourinho refused to see it as a marker having been laid for next year.
"I don't think so," said Mourinho. "It's an important victory, a good victory, I think deserved, but I don't see more than that. We need points to finish top four or finish second, and we got points in the stadium where it's most difficult to get points, where they won virtually every game.
"Next season, we must improve more. We have improved this season, more points, more goals, more victories, less defeats. We have improved, but not enough to win the title."
The improvement has been a slow grind at times, but the win at City was like the first green shoots of spring for United. Mourinho must now nurture them and ensure that come next season, he has a team that can win and entertain against the biggest and best -- and also deliver the title.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_