Having once more stepped away from a cliff of despair and discontent, Manchester United again try to jump-start their season Saturday at Dean Court against a Bournemouth side who are eager to find out if they can indeed run with the big boys this term.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
United (5-2-3) are in eighth place on 17 points, already nine points back of eternal rivals and reigning champions Manchester City – whom they face at the Etihad next weekend in the first Manchester derby of the season. This match almost has the feel of a trap game for Jose Mourinho’s side, who must also travel to Juventus for a Champions League match that could put their hopes of advancing in peril with a second loss to the Italian side.
As they did previously at Watford and versus Newcastle United, Manchester United showed resiliency in not letting the season go off the rails, this time seeing off in-form Everton 2-1 at Old Trafford last weekend. Paul Pogba alertly knocked home the rebound of his missed penalty after it was stopped by Jordan Pickford, and Anthony Martial continued his scintillating form with his fourth goal in four matches across all competitions.
Despite a non-sensical challenge by Chris Smalling that gifted the Toffees a penalty in the final quarter-hour, United saw the match out without much drama. Whether this was the match that was Martial’s coming-out party – the France international played a vibrant two-way game and his goal was a low, curling beauty across Pickford and off the right post – is yet to be determined, but Mourinho seemed convinced the 22-year-old grasps what he wants.
“He took quite a long time to understand what we want,” Mourinho told The Times. “He took quite a long time for his brain and body to be ready for how we want him to play. His performance without the goal would be a good performance. You cannot score every time you play, where you don’t assist but you have a certain balance. That is the way I think it is going now.”
The overall performance of United, who looked far more aggressive in intent offensively has created a dilemma of sorts for Mourinho. He dropped Romelu Lukaku from the starting XI, and missing a sitter in the final 25 minutes extended the Belgium international’s goal-scoring drought to nine matches in all competitions. But with Marcus Rashford leading the line and Juan Mata on the wing, there was far more creativity throughout the width of the final third as opposed to previously when United may have focused too much on getting the ball to Lukaku in the penalty area.
“I think when he scores one goal, life will change for him,” Mourinho told MUTV. “At the moment, I think he’s under that pressure that normally the strikers put on themselves, plus the press obviously. So it’s not an easy life for strikers when they don’t score goals.”
Martial’s fine run of form has also made a spectator of Alexis Sanchez, who was an unused sub versus Everton. The Chile international has logged just five minutes in United’s last three matches after bagging the late winner versus Newcastle for his only goal of the season.
While it can be discussed the aura that normally surrounds Manchester United has been punctured, it can also be argued Bournemouth’s current form may be strong enough to take on any Premier League side regardless of reputation.
“There is certainly no fear factor. The form book would say we might be favourites going into the game,” midfielder Simon Francis told The Mirror. “I don’t think we see it as a free hit any more, these kinds of games, because we believe we can beat them.
“These games are the ones we can grab by the scruff of the neck and take to Man United. The lads will be raring to go, are looking forward to every Premier League game and why not? We are on good form.”
The Cherries (6-2-2) are sixth in the table, just two points behind fourth-place Arsenal and are unbeaten in eight matches (6-2-0) across all competitions at home after a 2-1 victory over Championship side Norwich City on Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup opposite Chelsea.
Eddie Howe’s men may have been caught looking ahead to this game, but he also overturned eight of his starting XI that gave Fulham an impressive 3-0 thrashing at Craven Cottage last weekend. Defender Steve Cook snapped a 1-1 tie in the 72nd minute as the Cherries suffered most of the match against a determined Canaries side that had deservedly pulled level two minutes before Cook’s marker.
“We looked disjointed, maybe due to players coming in who haven’t had enough games, but we lacked a sharpness and fluency that’s usually there,” Howe noted to the club’s official website. “Overall, it was a disappointing performance but we withstood the pressure and found a way to win. It’s great to be in the next round.”
This is only the second of the “Big Six” squads Bournemouth have faced this season, with the lone result thus far a 2-0 loss at Chelsea. The Cherries went 2-0-10 in such matches last season, and if they are to harbour any hopes of European play next season, they need results in such high-stakes contests.
Striker Joshua King will likely be a late decision for Howe due to an ankle injury that sidelined him for the Fulham match. The Norway international has four goals, tying him for second with Ryan Fraser. Callum Wilson has a team-leading six markers for Bournemouth, who have 19 goals through 10 league matches after netting 45 last term.
United did the double last season, recording clean sheets in both games and emerging with a 1-0 victory at Dean Court on a goal by Lukaku in the 25th minute. Manchester United are unbeaten in their last five versus Bournemouth in league play (4-1-0) since the Cherries recorded a famous 2-1 upset in their first Premier League season in 2015.
Per Ladbrokes, United are still clear favourites to take home all three points at 21/20 odds, with Bournemouth listed at 12/5 to do likewise and stay unbeaten at home. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 5/2. The most expected outcome is a United win with more than 2.5 goals (19/10), though the same outcome for Bournemouth at 4/1 rates higher than a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline for United (9/2). A draw with under 2.5 goals also offers 4/1 odds, while a Cherries victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count is 17/2.
Rashford and Lukaku are joint top-options for the match’s first goal-scorer at 5/1, with Martial right behind them at 11/2. Wilson is Bournemouth’s top pick to make it 1-0 for the hosts, also at 1-0, while Sanchez curiously is high on the board at 13/2. Pogba and King are both 7/1, bracketing veteran Cherries striker Jermain Defoe at 13/2.
Lukaku and Rashford also lead the line for any-time goal-scorers with 8/5 odds, again narrowly edging out Martial (7/4). Wilson again gets top billing for the home side at 19/10 odds to score over the 90 minutes, with King 23/10 and both Pogba and Defoe at 11/5. Lurking at 3/1 is Bournemouth’s Brooks, with Fraser getting 10/3 odds to put one past De Gea.
Note: The inclusion of Rojo is a far-flung guess because no one has been head and shoulders above the rest at right back for Manchester United, and the belief is he cannot be any worse than Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia or anyone else Mourinho can throw back there.
Is this the Manchester United we have been waiting for all season? It has been a season of fits and starts for Mourinho’s men. Every match there is the expectation for them to kick on, they sputter. Every match in which the first few paragraphs of the obituary are ready to be published, they respond with a performance convincing enough to remind us they are Manchester United.
That is what makes this match so interesting. It is the middle of a difficult five-game gauntlet for United that concludes next Sunday across town at the Etihad. They are in no position to rotate personnel to set up for any of these three matches — this one, at Juventus, at City — over the next eight days to maximise the potential of winning three points in any of them.
With Lukaku expected to be returned to centre forward at the expense of Rashford is a curious decision, but also one that makes sense given neither distinguished themselves versus Everton, and Mourinho needs the Belgium to score a goal more heading into next week than he does young Rashford. Pogba has played better of late — penalty approach notwithstanding — and in Mata having a more advanced position, the France international now has a more-defined role on the pitch, something that goes further for him than a defined position.
In some ways, it was gratifying to see Francis’ quote in The Mirror because while United are a solid side, they are not the world-beaters that currently only Manchester City and Liverpool can claim to be. The previous opponents United had when there was a chance to kick them while they were down let them off the hook — more so Watford than Everton, as the latter simply failed to take advantage of gilt-edged chances they created while the former played in awe of the opponents’ shirt.
The good news is that Bournemouth did not do that at Chelsea in September when they suffered a 2-0 loss. That match was scoreless for 72 minutes before the Pensioners broke through, and they added an insurance tally five minutes from time. The Cherries have the form in which they should feel emboldened to take the fight to United at home. If they can flow through the midfield and make Nemanja Matic uncomfortable, this is a game that could be theirs for the taking.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Bournemouth 1, Manchester United 1.