Mourinho's big men Matic and Lukaku look to end Manchester United strife
For many a year, Manchester United winning a home league game scarcely constituted news. Last season it did. Old Trafford was more the Theatre of Draws than the Theatre of Dreams. A new season and a new striker brought a new scoreline. United recorded their biggest league victory under Jose Mourinho.
The pragmatist arrowed in on the most significant element: the result. What, the Portuguese was asked in his news conference, pleased him the most? "The win," he said. "Because many times last season we deserved to win and didn't, so the fact we won the match was the most important thing."
His side cast West Ham into the role of sacrificial lambs, symbolic figures who, the Portuguese must hope, epitomise the difference between campaigns. They drew 1-1 at Old Trafford in November, one of 10 teams to share the points with Mourinho's men. They lost 4-0 on their return. They could have been forgiven for a sense of foreboding from the moment that Mourinho paid £75 million for their regular tormentor Romelu Lukaku. A double took his tally to 11 goals in his past 11 games against West Ham; he has done more damage to them than even Avram Grant managed.
Yet beyond the significance for an individual, even one as expensive as Lukaku, came the implications for the collective. You scarcely need a mind as mathematical and analytical as Mourinho's to diagnose United's issues in his debut campaign. A manager who has set many a record mustered the wrong kind. Tallies of 26 goals and eight victories were United's fewest in the Premier League era. Three points and four goals represented the right sort of start as he sought to improve on those meagre figures.
Lukaku was the catalyst. "There was no pressure from me," said Mourinho, after counselling that "everybody expects goals from the striker." The £75m man's league debut yielded two. Accusations have been levelled that the Belgian is a flat-track bully. United required one. A man who delivered Goodison Park goals against inferior opponents last season threatens to offer the same level of service at Old Trafford. The header to double his tally was reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man he has replaced. The acceleration to score the opener was not.
And the addition of pace added an extra element to United. That was not purely due to Lukaku; Marcus Rashford, who was outstanding, suggested he might break into the United Kingdom's World Championship-winning 100-metre relay team and sprinted past the unfortunate Pablo Zabaleta at will, while the substitute Anthony Martial is no slower. Whereas United's past problems at Old Trafford have been prompted by ponderous sides, a swift start to the season was an indication a need for speed has been addressed.
"We didn't want to leave them one against one in individual situations," said Slaven Bilic, the West Ham manager illustrating the difference Mourinho's turbo-charged forward line brought. But he also mentioned the set-piece menace that produced Lukaku's second goal. The Croatian refused to use his injured contingent as an excuse. "We had a decent team out, and I expected more," a mournful Bilic said.
Not every opponent will be as supine as West Ham, not every game as easy as this. Mourinho was quick to guard against expectation. "Last season we were also top of the league in the first match and we finished sixth, so this means nothing," he said. Yet a second summer in charge has furnished him with a more suitable squad, even if one addition, Victor Lindelof, watched on from the directors' box after his manager declared his Super Cup bow came "too early" for the Swedish defender.
He likes to sign from the Premier League, and two of his Anglicised imports excelled. Lukaku made an obvious impact. Nemanja Matic's influence was more indirect, but a defensive midfielder enabled United to be more attacking. Mourinho can be characterised as a cautious coach. He was bolder, demoting Ander Herrera and jettisoning 4-3-3 for 4-2-3-1 to accommodate an extra creator. It seems it is easier for the goal scorer Paul Pogba to play in a midfield pair when his sidekick is the £35m Serbian.
Mourinho realised he needed a Matic-type player before he knew he could get Matic. The Serbian has slotted in seamlessly. He was United's outstanding player in the Super Cup. On his league bow, he showcased different facets of his game. A 50-yard pass released Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who won a corner. He hurdled challenges to win the ball back in the midfield battleground. He was a facilitator, a bridge between different parts of the team.
Mourinho gets romantic about realists and launched into an ode to a pragmatic player. "I brought him to Stamford Bridge because I thought he was a player with special qualities, and since I left [Chelsea] I always thought he could be a perfect player for us," he said.
"But I didn't disturb him, I didn't disturb Chelsea. I never thought it was possible unless something special was happening, and his agent told me something special was happening."
If Matic is the Special One's Special One, Lukaku lent the scoring touch. Old Trafford could savour the sense of something new: a league thrashing overseen by Mourinho. Perhaps the draws will be newsworthy this season, the wins serving as the routine results.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.