Is laughter the best medicine for Manchester United?
Although the New Year began brightly enough, it wasn’t a joyous holiday season for Manchester United. December’s end brought a run of three consecutive Premier League draws and embarrassing elimination from the EFL Cup to Championship side Bristol City. The last league result dropped them to third place behind a resurgent Chelsea.
To add injury to insult, Romelu Lukaku suffered a concussion in an ugly clash of heads with Southampton centre back Wesley Hoedt. Sight of the Belgian supine and motionless on the pitch until he was administered oxygen and gingerly transferred to a gurney did not bode well. While anyone with an ounce of compassion first hoped for an encouraging diagnosis and a swift but safe return for the player, it was natural to consider the consequences for the club.
I wondered whether United boss Jose Mourinho might be experiencing a crisis of confidence. In his New Year’s resolutions for the Premier League’s top six, Michael Jones suggested the team lacked an identity. Were the two ideas linked?
While watching United dispatch Everton at Goodison Park 0-2 on New Year’s Day, courtesy a pair of well-taken goals from Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, signs of personality from both the coach and side were evident. Problem was they were polar opposite. The disparity was especially evident in the second half.
As the players waited for Andre Marriner to whistle the restart, Mourinho was asked to photobomb a selfie for an Everton fan. He obliged, but the ever-present scowl he has worn of late, as if from a contaminated batch of Botox, remained on his face as he rose, posed, then slunk back into his seat.
On the pitch, United players looked optimistic. Although the opening goal didn’t arrive until the 58th minute, you could see they were having fun. Marcos Rojo let loose from forty yards, testing the reflexes of fans in the Park Stand's 20th row. The always smiling Juan Mata, zipping around in full water bug mode, curled one past a desperate Jordan Pickford, who was rescued by friendly woodwork.
Finally, Paul Pogba went left, pulled up, then squared the ball across the top of the eighteen, where Anthony Martial had time to tee it up, then curl his shot past Pickford without troubling the post.
Sam Allardyce sent Aaron Lennon and James McCarthy on to boos from the Toffees faithful. Not because the inevitable Beatles references were getting old; rather top scorer Wayne Rooney was departing and chief creator Gylfi Sigurdsson, available though still not match fit after injury, was not entering the fray.
Events soon validated Big Sam’s choice. McCarthy went all Admiral Halsey on United in midfield, tackling with zeal and impunity. Everton enjoyed extended spells of possession in the final third for the first time during the half. After ten minutes, during which David de Gea wasn’t severely tested but was actually required to work, expectations of a fourth equaliser in as many contests started creeping along the edges of the mind like a mouse smelling cheese in a lit kitchen.
Except, United had not stopped having fun. Yes, Pogba got into it for a moment with Aaron Lennon, but others intervened and Marriner elected to give peace a chance.
Immediately thereafter, United began to reassert itself. Rojo made a timely intervention when Tom Davies attacked the United box, then flashed a cheeky grin as the pair moved back up the pitch. Victor Lindelof cracked a joke that elicited a smile and the ball from an irate Allardyce, who was cradling the latter under one arm while protesting Marriner awarding a throw-in to United. Pogba was bowled over by an Everton tackle, then laughingly dominoed Marriner as he tried to get back in the play. Jesse Lingard grimaced, then shrugged after forcing a bottom drawer save from Jordan Pickford.
Gradually, United’s optimism wore down Everton’s uprising. Just inside ten minutes remaining, Lingard was given a do-over against Pickford. With a head of steam this time, and despite letting go from greater distance, the youngster curled the ball around the helpless Everton keeper. No effort, top drawer or otherwise, was going to keep that one out. The strike put him at the forefront in some distinctive company.
Soon after, Lingard was given a rest. As he climbed up into the row of players’ seats behind the United coaches, Lingard paused to chat with Mourinho. The coach, still scowling, appeared confused as the player threw his head back, laughed, patted the boss on the shoulder, then moved on. It was as though the Portuguese had forgot winning is fun.
More importantly, it had also slipped his mind that the reverse can be true, as well. As Manchester City has been demonstrating, fun can also win.
In the aftermath, Mou, Rui Faria, and Silvino Louro will review the game tapes. They will pick out minor details that need correcting. Mou may latch onto Pogba’s defiance as the game’s critical moment.
It would be better, however, for the manager to realise his team does have an identity, one which Pogba's playful nature epitomises. If the Frenchman is truly the man Mourinho has in mind to captain the side, he must accept him for who he is. Like the young men he will lead, Pogba enjoys the game, no matter the competitive intensity. He is quick to laugh. Knock him down, he will get up and come at you again, smiling as he does. Anger him? It will pass, but the memory will not. Most importantly, when he scores, he will celebrate. After the match, there will be handshakes all around, and happy visits with countrymen and former teammates, such as Michael Keane and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Fans can be like Mourinho. We take football so seriously, but it is a game meant to entertain, not validate our existence.
Mourinho has already labeled his squad “childish” for making mistakes. Yet, that is also what young players do. They must learn, albeit not at the cost of their spirit. Might Henrikh Mkhitaryan finally come good if the boss isn’t strangling his enthusiasm? For once, this may be a team in which the players’ personality needs to be imprinted on the manager.