Jose Mourinho teams have never been in the habit of winning beauty contests, but they are rather good at winning football matches. The 2-1 victory over arch rivals Liverpool was a Mourinho master class in how to negate the opposition and collect the points.
Mourinho was right to maintain afterwards that his team had kept Liverpool’s much vaunted attack very quiet. It took a clumsy own goal from Eric Bailly to put Jurgen Klopp’s team on the scoresheet. So while other teams may have an edge in flamboyance and excitement, United are becoming mighty effective. They have won 10 of their past 13 games and only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals in the Premier League this season.
Of course, City are inhabiting a different universe to their rivals, but United are well placed to finish best of the rest and are favourites to progress this week with home ties in the Champions League (against Sevilla) and FA Cup (against Brighton).
Manchester United teams are traditionally expected to win with adventure, style and class. But you sense most fans starved of much success since the exit of Sir Alex Ferguson will settle for any approach which puts them in trophy contention.
The days when United could take title triumphs for granted are gone. Now they have to scrap it out with five other clubs who have realistic chances of silverware. A more pragmatic approach, if it works, is likely to get a more sympathetic reception these days.
Only the romantics and dreamers believe United have to recreate the flair years of George Best-Denis Law-Bobby Charlton and later Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo. Those kind of trimmings can come later.
This is now a team built in the image of its manager — tough, organised, hard to beat and with players who know their jobs, especially when the other team has the ball.
The exception is Paul Pogba, whose tactical discipline to toe the line in Mourinho’s system has been an issue. Indeed, the manager may not have been broken hearted by the injury which ruled him out of the Liverpool game.
Mourinho, who can irritate and amuse in equal measure, has to face sniping criticism that his style flies in the face of club traditions. But doesn’t he deserve some credit for making Manchester United a force again?
In any case, it is not as if Mourinho’s team are dull. Marcus Rashford’s skill in scoring the first goal on Saturday was stunning, and players like Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard add a sprinkling of flair. In fact, United have scored only one fewer than Spurs, who enjoy far more acclaim as cavaliers and get a far better press.
However valuable Romelu Lukaku’s goals have been, it’s fair to say the comparative success of this United side is built mostly on organization, resilience and the brilliance of keeper David De Gea.
So while United might not be as easy on the eye as City, Liverpool or Spurs, they are still a good team with a clever and experienced manager. There is nothing in the laws of the game which dictates how you win football matches — the beauty is often in the blend of styles. It would be boring if every team approached matches in the same way.
Time perhaps to accept Manchester United for the team they have become, not the team we think they should be.