The Boot Room: Manchester United can swagger back into the title race
ALEX Ferguson retired as Manchester United manager on May 8 2013. It has taken three-and-a-half years and three managers for the club to find its feet again.
Given Ferguson’s longevity and stature, it is probably no surprise it took so long for United to recover and become a contender again.
Finally, it seems, there is light at the end of the tunnel at Old Trafford.
The famous arena had become a joyless place, and that includes the last couple of years of Ferguson’s reign.
One of the Scot’s greatest feats was winning the league title in his final season in charge. But the football was often dire and not in keeping with the verve and swagger that many of Ferguson’s teams famously played with.
The result became a means to an end.
Former Barcelona midfielder and self-confessed football romantic Xavi Hernandez has consistently argued that the focus on the game is not where it should be.
“People,” he said, “have to focus a bit more on how things are done, not just on the final result.
“The result is an imposter in football. There is something greater than the result, more lasting - a legacy.”
In Ferguson’s last couple of years in charge, United became the game’s great grinders.
And when he left, the squad needed a major rebuild.
The task dwarfed poor David Moyes and despite winning the FA Cup, Louis Van Gaal’s strategy was far too prescriptive and equally disastrous as Moyes’ reign.
Under Van Gaal, the football was slow and ponderous.
The only entertainment felt around Old Trafford during the Dutchman’s time in charge was at his press conferences.
These were dark days.
It probably took one of the game’s most controversial figures to turn the tide at Old Trafford.
Never one to shun the dark arts, Jose Mourinho boasted the one critical ingredient to halt Manchester United’s decline: personality.
Given how his second stint at Chelsea unravelled, this has been some comeback by Mourinho.
It took him a while to get there.
For the Portuguese, Michael Carrick was a slow-burner - but so critical in giving the team balance and releasing Paul Pogba into a favoured old-fashioned inside-left position where the Frenchman is flourishing.
Juan Mata, a goal-scoring midfielder Mourinho rejected at Chelsea and threatened to do the same at United, has been hugely influential to the team’s exciting revival.
Surround Mata with pace and the Spaniard glows.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also been a revelation since gaining the manager’s latent trust and is the closest thing since the great Eric Cantona graced Old Trafford.
The graphs of Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones are impressive since Mourinho arrived.
I had reservations about the impact Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have at United.
Coming to the most physically demanding league in the world so late in his career was a big ask of the mercurial Swede.
But when you look at Ibrahimovic and then you look at Wayne Rooney, it's the latter who looks 35-years-old - not the former Inter Milan and Barcelona striker.
Some ageing players have a good clear eye on the finishing line - and in those last rages against the dying light you sometimes see the very best of them.
This is Ibrahimovic’s glowing narrative since he arrived at Old Trafford last summer.
He has been the team’s charismatic totem the manager expected him to be.
Not only is he the team's top scorer many of Ibrahimovic’s goals this season have proved decisive.
Mourinho has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal and although he was perhaps hesitant in incorporating Mkhitaryan, Carrick and Mata into his plans, as well as maximising Pogba's boundless potential, they are now all important cogs in the United wheel - and they are the reasons why the team is exciting to watch again.
For all of Mourinho's notorious gamesmanship and crankiness in front of the media, he understands the traditions of Manchester United and the desire to play exciting, high-tempo football - something that was completely lost on Van Gaal.
But Mourinho hasn't been afraid to show his pragmatic side either. He went to Anfield earlier in the season and played for a scoreless draw.
The team has evolved since then.
Trailing 1-0 in last Sunday's corresponding fixture, the strategy was to go route one in the second half in order to by-pass Liverpool's exceptional high press - which completely nullified United's midfield metronome Michael Carrick.
The tactic worked as United grabbed a late equaliser and were perhaps unlucky not to go on and win the game.
While Pep Guardiola remains wedded to an inflexible and egotistical philosophy - which will inevitably see Man City slip out of the top four - Mourinho is the one who has shown adaptability when the occasion demands it.
Had Guardiola been in the United dug-out last Sunday, Liverpool would almost certainly have ran out 1-0 winners.
United are on a 16-match unbeaten run. Like Ferguson's teams, they are scoring late goals again.
Since they embarked on this run, Mourinho's side has scored 14 goals in the last 15 minutes of games.
Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp have performed outstandingly well so far this season.
If he stays in England for the next five years, Klopp will win a Premiership title with Liverpool.
With an insatiable work-rate and defensive organisation, Conte can win the title at his first attempt.
It may mean Manchester United will rue some of the seven draws they’ve racked up this season (the highest in the division) at the end of the campaign.
They may be still in sixth place and 12 points adrift - but given the progress that's been made over the last two months, United could well be Chelsea's nearest challengers in the run-in.
But, regardless of how the final league table looks in May, the swagger is back at United.
And that alone is worth celebrating.