Never mind the novelty of seeing Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Manchester United’s wing, the sights that had Old Trafford rubbing its eyes in disbelief were a third game in a row for Michael Carrick and what looked suspiciously like Wayne Rooney proving his critics wrong.
The latter may have his limitations as a wedding pianist but here was evidence he can still lead defenders a merry dance. José Mourinho has taken a lot of stick this season for believing his captain can still make a useful contribution, even bowing to public opinion and dropping him at one point, but, restored to the No10 position behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the England striker rolled back the years and both made and scored the first goal in one of his most convincing performances of the season.
Carrick making three consecutive starts has not happened before under Mourinho, who has tended to use his veteran midfielder sparingly, though the manager appears to have formed the same conclusion as everyone else. Not only does Carrick anchor the midfield and use the ball when it comes his way, his positional discipline allows Paul Pogba a much freer attacking role.
The Frenchman had two attempts on goal within the first five minutes, first heading over the bar when he might have been better leaving the chance to the better placed Ibrahimovic, then blazing into the Stretford End from a position where he at least ought to have tested Brad Jones. It was a bright start from United, who knew defeat would mean an early exit, though wastefulness in front of goal has been a feature of their recent performances. Mourinho believes his side have been unlucky, which to an extent they have, yet there can be no denying the statistics that show their shots-to-goals ratio is one of the worst in the Premier League.
What United needed to do was be more clinical in the final third, both in terms of creating clear-cut chances and finishing them. They did not get off to the most promising of starts when Ibrahimovic nodded down Rooney’s cross to present Mkhitaryan with a close-range opportunity he was not alert enough to accept. At least Pogba had found his range by the mid-point of the first half, shooting from distance but accurately enough to force a tip over the bar. That was nothing to the succession of saves Sergio Romero had to make when Feyenoord threatened on the break and almost took the lead through Dirk Kuyt, a reminder the visitors had won in Rotterdam and possess the sort of speed on the counterattack that United seem to have misplaced.
Then, wonder of wonders, United struck on the counter to take the lead. The goal had all the hallmarks of vintage United, including touchline-hugging wing play and a deftly audacious finish, and was all the more remarkable for both these ingredients being provided by Rooney. As he reminded reporters last week, he is not finished after all, and whenever the time comes to write his obituary this will go down as one of his better goals. Operating on the left wing in the position where Mkhitaryan started the game, Rooney turned defence into attack by just managing to keep the ball in play, found Ibrahimovic in the centre then moved up to take the return pass. On his way he gave Renato Tapia the gentlest of nudges that resulted in the defender obligingly falling to the floor, then used the free space to stay narrowly onside before expertly dinking the ball over the goalkeeper.
Though notionally deployed in the centre of United’s front three Rooney kept popping up to good effect on both wings, a freedom he was allowed because Pogba was playing so far forward and Juan Mata kept drifting into the middle. If Carrick is the key to all this then United may finally have arrived at an effective formation that best uses their resources. Even Mkhitaryan came out of his shell and began enjoying himself in the second half, and though his appeals for a foul were rather harshly overlooked when he took on and almost beat the entire Feyenoord defence, the smarter option might have been to pass to Rooney who was up in support and unmarked. Moments later Rooney could be found back in his own half, helping out the defence, just before he turned up on the right again to provide the cross from which Mkhitaryan volleyed narrowly over.
United still need to convert a greater proportion of their chances, though as the old saying goes, at least they are making chances. Even before Carrick and Rooney helped set up the second goal this front four, with Pogba just behind, look as lively and inventive as anything seen at Old Trafford this season. It is perhaps a pity Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have been squeezed out in the process, though time is still on their side.
Mkhitaryan perhaps needs a few more games for full sharpness – no surprise there – but Rooney’s sharpness was the story of the match. United may not have managed without him and it has been a while since anyone said that.
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