Sandwiched between two matches with Saint Etienne, Manchester United faced Blackburn Rovers at the weekend. The hosts are struggling deep in the Championship, but gave a good account of themselves as they frustrated Manchester United deep into the second half at Ewood Park. With progression almost secured after thumping Les Verts on Thursday night, Jose Mourinho fielded a strong side in the FA Cup.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan started after being unavailable in midweek, Marcus Rashford was given a chance to lead the line and there was a rare sighting of Ashley Young at full-back. The notable absentees were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata. Michael Carrick returned to the midfield, while Jesse Lingard got a rare start in place of Mata. Squad rotation is not really Mourinho’s forte, but their emphatic result on Thursday enabled him to field the line-up he did in the knowledge he can rotate freely this week.
Blackburn were hard work for Manchester United, though. Having taken the lead through Danny Graham, the underdogs sat deep and limited the impact of United’s stars. Mkhitaryan was wonderful to watch once again, but the difficulties that Mourinho’s side have suffered in front of goal continued further.
This forced Mourinho to revert to type. With a replay a disaster for their already congested fixture list, the win-at-all costs Mourinho turned to his bench-warming superstars in the second half. Pogba and Ibrahimovic changed the game, with the Swede scoring the eventual winner with a delightful finish. They are likely to resume their resting duties when United head to France for the second leg of their Europa League encounter, but the need for their introduction raises questions.
Mourinho does not trust young, less proven players. Rather than keeping faith in his non-first choice players to sneak a victory, Mourinho quickly threw on the big guns.
It worked, of course, and it was necessary because of the chaos that a replay would have caused the club. For those players, however, it must raise questions about their status in the team. Lingard is never going to find a role more significant than his current bit part and Rashford will never supersede Ibrahimovic as the main striker if even in an FA Cup outing against a Championship side Mourinho opted to change things. Manchester United may well have still won the match if Rashford and Lingard had been left on the pitch, but Mourinho did not trust them to avoid an embarrassing draw.
In many ways, that is the brilliance of Mourinho. Rather than waiting for disaster to strike, he is proactive from the bench. Avoiding a replay was a necessity for Manchester United given how the remainder of their season is laid out and his bold decision making brought them a deserved victory. He will not be the man to nurture the young talent at a club or keep players on the pitch to keep them happy, but he will keep his side fighting on multiple fronts. It works for Mourinho, it works for Zlatan, and the two are a match made in ego heaven.
Had a replay been forced by Blackburn, it would have made it far more challenging for Manchester United to commit to the four different competitions they are in. Instead, they are in position to win three cups and push for a top four finish.
Ibrahimovic’s hat-trick on Thursday gave Mourinho flexibility on Sunday, and the Portuguese manager took full advantage of it. Although their difficulty in breaking down Blackburn’s defence may not reflect well on the starters from Sunday afternoon’s encounter, their eventual victory is further proof of the quality in Manchester United’s squad.