Manchester United have not won the Premier League for more than three seasons, or even come close to challenging for it. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson left they have looked like a team desperately lacking in identity, courage and that winning purpose that keeps teams at the very top of the table.
So as the first step of the Jose Mourinho era, the first game under the man employed to bring those qualities back to Old Trafford, it was the perfect start. United did not play especially well but this was the first game of a new cycle and it would be unfair to expect too much. They did do enough to win 3-1 away at Bournemouth, and they could have won by more. This is a league where the reigning champions lost the first game of their title defence to a side who could barely get a team out. Every win counts.
Mourinho’s main task at United is to impose his personality and his structure on this squad, to turn them into a serious side again. That will take months but the evidence from Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon, as was also seen in the Community Shield, is that some steady progress has started.
There was a direct muscularity to this United performance which they did not show enough of during their two years under Louis van Gaal. They did not play very well, especially in the first half, but they took advantage of a mistake to take the lead. Once ahead they controlled the game and dominated the second half. Two quick goals from Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic secured the three points and Bournemouth’s late siege was successfully resisted.
While Rooney and Ibrahimovic did both score, their partnership did not exactly spark up. As in the Community Shield last Sunday, they looked like two men who should be competing for one place in the side, as the point of reference for other quicker forwards. And United’s struggles to create much in the first 40 minutes owed to their faltering combinations against a busy scurrying Bournemouth side.
If Rooney is going to play as a number 10 behind Ibrahimovic then he will have to play better than this. His first touch let him down as Bournemouth successfully swarmed him, Lewis Cook stealing the ball off his toes more than once. Rooney was also not quick enough to run beyond his strike partner and stretch the game. He had one half-chance on 26 minutes, from the edge of the box, but shot straight at Artur Boruc. Paul Pogba was suspended and could not make his debut, but it was easy to envisage him slotting into that role behind the striker, and doing it with far more precision and power.
When United took the lead it was thanks to a mixture of initiative and good fortune. Ander Herrera saw Juan Mata making a run and played a good forward pass. Simon Francis got their first, but underhit his pass back to Boruc. Mata darted in and shot at Boruc but the ball hit Francis and rebounded back to Mata, who scored into an empty net.
Bournemouth had played well until then but the game changed with the goal, as United could relax and take over. Ibrahimovic started to dictate play and early in the second half he played Rooney in with a wonderful flick. Rooney, though, was not sharp enough to take advantage and could not beat Boruc.
It might have been a frustrating afternoon for Rooney, but he eventually managed to double United’s lead. Antonio Valencia burst down the right and crossed, Anthony Martial volleyed the ball back on the bounce and Rooney, curiously unmarked, headed in from close range.
Ibrahimovic did not want to be left out and Boruc had to save brilliantly from his curling free-kick soon after. The next time Ibrahimovic would not be denied, as he picked up the ball 30 yards out an drove it into the far bottom corner of the goal. Mourinho ran away in glee, knowing that his first win had been secured.
Bournemouth flew back into the game in the last 20 minutes, and right-back Adam Smith pulled a goal back. He cut into the box onto his left foot and beat David De Gea with force. But Bournemouth could not rediscover the intensity they showed over the first 30 minutes, and United’s keep-ball secured the points. There are no complete performances in August, but there was more than enough here for Mourinho to be proud about.
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