Manchester United 4-0 Wigan Athletic
■ United: Fellaini (44’) Smalling (57’) Mkhitaryan (74’) Schweinsteiger (81’)
■ Man of the Match: Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Somewhere, perhaps in the Portuguese villa he calls “paradise”, Louis van Gaal may have watched on and considered himself vindicated.
Much as Jose Mourinho positions himself as the antithesis of his predecessor and tries to represent a break from Manchester United’s recent past, there was a distinct flavour of the Dutchman about this.
Consider three of the four scorers. Marouane Fellaini, Van Gaal’s ungainly talisman who symbolised the directness he used as an alternative to sideways passing, headed United into the lead. Chris Smalling, installed as the premier centre-back by the end of his reign, added the second. Bastian Schweinsteiger, an ally of Van Gaal’s from their days at Bayern Munich, came out of hibernation, made his first start for 385 days and ended with a goal and an assist, in the process doubling each tally in his previous 33 club games.
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The third goal may have been scored by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a Mourinho signing, but it was set up by Anthony Martial, Van Gaal’s biggest buy and one of a handful, with Daley Blind, Smalling and Fellaini, who delivered more for the Dutchman than the Portuguese.
Mourinho has been public in his criticism of the Frenchman and may consider his policy of tough love justified. The alternative interpretation is to wonder why Martial has not been involved more when he is capable of such scintillating form. After a false start, when he began poorly as a striker, he excelled in the hour he spent on the left wing, creating two goals, starting the move that culminated in Mkhitaryan shooting wide, displaying sheer speed as a solo runner and, when Smalling doubled United’s advantage, a delicacy of cross.
The eventual scoreline was harsh on Wigan, but as they have lost on all nine trips to Old Trafford by an aggregate score of 32-1, they are accustomed to disappointment here. The 2013 FA Cup winners were eliminated by the holders and whereas others have stumbled, United, with successive 4-0 wins, have advanced with the minimum of fuss.
They were able to run riot despite a slow start.
“The first half was not good,” Mourinho admitted.
Fellaini and Schweinsteiger’s midfield partnership seemed to bring back unwanted memories of the ponderousness of the passing under Van Gaal. Then the German bent in a deep cross, the Belgian climbed above Callum Connolly at the far post and the complexion of the game changed.
After Smalling struck, there was more of Mourinho about the swift counter-attack that yielded the third, Mkhitaryan and Martial swapping passes as they sped into the penalty box for the Armenian to finish. Schweinsteiger added a fourth with an overhead kick, hooking the ball in as he fell. His second United goal was a reward for the professionalism he demonstrated when he was demoted to train with the reserves. Another sign of the renaissance in his future beckons.
“He is staying,” said Mourinho about Schweinsteiger. “He is going into the Europa League [squad] list because we open spaces with [Memphis] Depay and [Morgan] Schneiderlin going. With so many games, he will be an option.”
Yet if it sounded a triumphant return, there was little in the German’s otherwise sluggish performance to suggest he will be anything other than a back-up in the Premier League.
Mourinho deflected questions about Wayne Rooney, who started but was demoted to a subplot by the scorers around him and who could reportedly increase his already extortionate wages in China, by saying the only player likely to leave this month is Ashley Young.
“I would love to keep him,” Mourinho said about Young. He was another Van Gaal favourite. Often shunted into the sidings by Mourinho, they were ubiquitous yesterday.
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