Upon finding half a second to close your eyes amid all the beautiful unpredictability of Saturday’s Manchester derby, it was easy to forget this is 2018 with Jose Mourinho’s version of Manchester United defying the odds against Manchester City.
As Paul Pogba drove on from midfield to inspire the most unexpected of comebacks at the Etihad Stadium, it felt almost as if we’d been lost in time, trapped in some kind of blackhole that had taken everybody back to the Sir Alex Ferguson era – when such dramatic victories clawing the club back from the brink of despair were part of the parcel with the Red Devils.
United etched Saturday’s derby into Manchester folklore for their own reasons on Saturday; while it may not have been as special as City recording the earliest top flight title win in the history of English football at the expense of the club that once branded them mere noisy neighbours, United’s result and the way they went about getting it won’t be forgotten quickly.
It was a fairy tale moment, and that’s a big part of what Fergie’s United were all about – forcing themselves to achieve what appeared almost impossible and creating memories that last a lifetime.
Mourinho’s United, barring Saturday’s performance, haven’t been quite so spectacular. If Fergie’s United were an instinctive beast that truly exploded into life when it felt most threatened, Mourinho’s United is far more machine. It grinds down teams, it only makes the most calculated of risks, if any at all, and it relies on all cogs functioning with routine regularity. Often too, it has lacked that emotive response to hardship as well.
There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, if there’s one obvious criticism of United’s many mesmerising moments under Ferguson, it’s that they were nearly all created by self-excreted messes – but it just isn’t what United have built their history on, and it just isn’t what United fans expect to see. There isn’t enough flair, enough danger, enough human emotion and passion.
Peculiarly though, this United side is clearly capable of playing in the traditional, gung-ho way that made the Red Devils such a relentless force in English football under Ferguson.
Only Bournemouth have won more points from losing positions than United in the Premier League this season, and Saturday’s three-goal comeback was in fact the second time they’ve done so in four league games – the other being a last-gasp win at Selhurst Park that required a stoppage time thunderbolt from Nemanja Matic.
The performances against Palace and City make it obvious the problem isn’t the quality of personnel at Old Trafford, even if it still feels like they lack the type of enigmatic stars synonymous with the Fergie era.
When Mourinho lets off the handbrake, this side can score goals against the very best of them – City at home, a ground where they’d previously conceded 10 goals in 15 league games, unquestionably fall into that category – but the occasions in which he’s done so, even when United have found their backs to the wall, have been sparingly few and glaringly far between.
This isn’t a question of philosophies; Mourinho has his way of setting up a team and although he’s more expedient than the common narrative would suggest – just look at the freedom he gave Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid – the Portuguese’s sides will always have a functional feel about them, based on physicality, organisation and directness.
But that doesn’t mean United can’t be entertaining at the same time. Did Leicester not entertain when they won the Premier League title, at least for the first half of the season? Did Chelsea not play some gorgeous football in the early stages of their last English crowning under Mourinho? Do Crystal Palace, with their flying wingers and zip on the counter-attack, not have the supporters on the edge of their seats practically every fortnight at Selhurst Park?
More than game-plans, styles and preferences, it’s a matter of mindset. Mourinho only takes risks when he absolutely has to, but this United team have proved they’re capable of much more than that.
They’re capable of taking the game to the opposition and even if it costs them a goal or even a point here or there, more often than not it will surely lead to the right result and intoxicating moments in the process, just as it did under Ferguson. United can still be a machine, but Mourinho must let the engine roar at full power – even if it does leave the Red Devils worryingly vibrating at the seams, even if it does blow a gasket every now and then.
Doubters will argue an old dog rarely learns new tricks, and after building a career of incredible success upon it, the Portuguese inevitably seems unlikely to alter his mantra now. But the evidence that United can play in a more ambitious, risky and cavalier way continues to grow and if Mourinho’s as pragmatic as the footballing world often accuses him of being, he’ll find that tougher and tougher to ignore.
But in many ways, that’s what makes Saturday’s incredible comeback all the more significant for United, because everything about it defied what Mourinho has attempted to impose at Old Trafford.
If that three-goal glut in the second half doesn’t convince Mourinho that this United side are better off being allowed to play on the front foot, taking risks and redeeming themselves from their own mistakes, nothing will.