Five things we learned as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata secure Man United win at the Aviva
Manchester United ended their pre-season campaign with victory over Sampdoria in Dublin, with new signing Nemanja Matic impressing on his unofficial debut.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan opened the scoring at the Aviva Stadium shortly after Daley Blind had almost given United's opponents the lead, playing a loose 30-yard backpass that goalkeeper David de Gea had to claw away from goal.
It was Sampdoria's most significant chance of a first half that United dominated, but Jose Mourinho's side allowed their opponents back into the contest after the interval.
After Dennis Praet capitalised on a series of errors in the United defence to equalise, it seemed as though United would fail to end their tour on a high.
Nine minutes from time, however, Juan Mata restored his side's lead, converting first-time after Anthony Martial's neat wing play.
Here are five things we learned from United's victory in Dublin...
1. Matic shows why he is a Mourinho man
Mourinho spent his pre-match tunnel interview with the club’s in-house television channel talking up his new signing as a player “of my ideas, the way I think”. Certainly, as a tough and towering destroyer who’s not a stranger to the odd moment of indiscretion, Nemanja Matic fits the ball.
Yet Mourinho’s style is also about exerting control on a match. That was exactly what the Serbian did, despite his late start to pre-season after being exiled at Chelsea. Matic stifled the Sampdoria midfield, sweeping up on the rare occasions in the first half that the Serie A side found space to manoeuvre.
He was also more than happy to make his first tackles in a Manchester United shirt more than a little bit robust. One particularly forceful challenge towards the end of the first half ended the Italians’ attack, left his opponent in a heap on the floor and had an innocent bystander clutching at her face after being hit by the loose ball. He offered a hug as an apology but on this showing, Premier League midfielders cannot expect him to be so sympathetic.
2. Pogba already more adventurous
With Matic’s arrival, logic dictated that the world’s most expensive footballer - for the next few hours at least - would be freed up to play in his best position, darting forward as a traditional box-to-box midfielder, busying himself all over the pitch. Instead, Paul Pogba was deployed in an slightly unfamiliar role, advanced in the inside-left channel, as Mourinho experimented with his formation.
Even so, Pogba’s general play was notably adventurous during his 45 minutes on the pitch and a sign of what we can come to expect in the forthcoming campaign. His cross-field passing was particularly excellent and allowed United to bring the best of wing-backs Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian, who impressed offensively while the Frenchman was on the pitch.
Pogba’s doubters will not be happy until he regularly puts in match-winning performances that have an explicit impact on how points are won and lost. Yet here, there were signs that United are ready to allow him to become that player by building a team around him.
3. Central trio in worrying form
After beginning pre-season with a back three, Mourinho bookended it with same defensive system, and this time felt more significant than the first. Certainly, it was no accident that Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof and Daley Blind were the trio to line up alongside each other, given the suspensions that will keep Phil Jones and Eric Bailly out of Tuesday’s Super Cup.
The United manager need only look at Sampdoria’s equaliser to see why he should be concerned about the form of each member in that central three. Blind, in particular, has looked off the pace over the last few weeks. His horror backpass to De Gea in the opening stages here, which almost put United 1-0 down, was only the most spectacular of several poor moments on the ball from the utility man.
Against better opposition, like say the champions of Europe, such moments will be punished.
4. Darmian establishing himself in defence
It remains early days, but the gradual resurgence of Matteo Darmian’s Old Trafford career moved on a little further here with a display that suggested even a fit and firing Luke Shaw would not dislodge him from the left-back berth.
After starting life in Manchester so well, with a string of impressive performances at the start of Louis van Gaal’s second season, Darmian totally lost his way after the October international break. There were moments last season too where after being handed an opportunity by his new manager, he disappointed.
This calendar year, however, the Italian has began to look far more assured in his play and has grown into his attacking responsibilities. The assist for Henrikh Mkhitaryan here was evidence of that. With Blind’s wretched form and Shaw’s own issues, Darmian is becoming Mourinho’s established left-back and United supporters can begin to show confidence in him again.
5. Martial ready when inspiration needed
Despite the positives of the first half, in which United were dominant, the substitutions of some of United’s best performers at half-time meant moments of inspiration were few and far between after the break. Without Matic to break play down in the middle and Pogba’s vision, United’s attack began to look reminiscent of the sterile play that let Mourinho’s side down at times last season.
The player who eventually changed all this was the mercurial Anthony Martial. He took a while to play his way into a friendly broken up substitutions and his contributions varied in quality, but he was the only one in red who looked capable of threatening for much of the second half. When the second goal game, it was borne out of another hopeful dribble down the left by the Frenchman, and he showed composure to square to scorer Juan Mata.
It probably was not a goal that United’s overall second-half performance deserved and they had Martial to thank for it.