Man United's pace, power under Jose Mourinho make them title favourites
Something big is happening at Old Trafford. For manager Jose Mourinho, size matters, and Manchester United are growing into the most physically impressive side in the Premier League. Successive 4-0 victories against West Ham United and Swansea City indicate that his plans are working.
Strength and power have always been important in the Premier League, and newcomers to the division are often both surprised and irritated by the emphasis on physicality. Managers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have both complained about the robust style of play in England, while Rafa Benitez summed up the problem more than a decade ago.
"There are no tactics in the Premier League," said Benitez. "It comes down to 'compete for the first ball, win the second ball.'" In this sort of combative environment, brawn and speed can sometimes trump talent, and Mourinho has always understood this.
During his first spell at Chelsea in the mid-2000s, Mourinho created a team with a spine of real strength led by John Terry, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba. They could play, but they could also battle. Arsenal could be knocked off their stride by the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, but Chelsea could take the fight to any opponents.
The same process is happening at Old Trafford. United's activity in the transfer market since Mourinho took over shows this clearly. Last summer Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived in Manchester. All three are towering 6-footers. In this window, the Red Devils have added more beef to the squad as Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof are all tall, quick and muscular. The only front-line acquisition shorter than 6 feet under Mourinho has been Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Size plus speed is the Premier League's equation for success. Mourinho's massive budget has allowed him to target players with those qualities, but they are also highly skilled and have a killer instinct. Swansea put out a relatively big side at the Liberty Stadium but the visitors were unruffled. Yet Mourinho isn't building to beat the likes of Swansea; he's creating a team to bully the five clubs that finished above United.
Last season, the Red Devils took only 10 points from the available 30 against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. When Mourinho does not trust his players, his default tactics are to squeeze the life out of a game, keep a clean sheet and try to pinch a goal. He is closer now to having a squad he believes in, which means United should be less cautious against top-four rivals and title contenders.
The 54-year-old has noted the complaints of Guardiola and Klopp about the rugged nature of the league, so City and Liverpool can expect their encounters with United to be more rigorous in this campaign. Arsenal are habitually lightweight, and Mourinho has enjoyed browbeating Arsene Wenger's teams over the years. That will not change.
Chelsea will be a tougher proposition. They have big bodies and pace. Antonio Conte's squad is too thin, though, and is not as balanced as United's. Spurs have the right mixture of size, speed and energy to match Mourinho's team, but they lack experience.
United have another advantage. They do not meet any of their top-six rivals until they go to Anfield in October to face Liverpool, a full eight games into the season. Chelsea will have played three of last season's top five by then. City, Liverpool and Arsenal will have faced two of their Champions League rivals, and Spurs have already dropped three points to Antonio Conte's Chelsea side. Mourinho has a perfect opportunity to steal a march on the title pretenders.
The key to United's potential dominance lies in the combination of Matic and Pogba in central midfield. It defies belief that Chelsea should have allowed Matic, the Serbia international, to go to Old Trafford. The 29-year-old is a little one-dimensional in his style of play, but his discipline and mobility allow Pogba to get forward. The French superstar can have the same sort of impact this season as Dele Alli has had the past couple of years. Pogba (at 6-3) and Matic (6-4) are both quick to loose balls, showing aggression and effective play in possession. Not many midfields will relish a contest with this duo, and Mourinho can supplement them with the imposing Marouane Fellaini (6-4).
United have started the season playing superb, clinical football, and they're likely to improve as the campaign goes on. In some quarters Mourinho has a reputation for playing a drab style of football; it is unfair criticism. When he gets the type of personnel he wants, he is known for fashioning brilliant, pacy and fast-breaking sides. The one evolving at Old Trafford has all the hallmarks of a team that will dominate opponents.
United may be big but they are certainly clever. They're also growing in stature. The Premier League should beware.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.