Heart Of Football: Jose Mourinho's troops are ready to stand tall

If Usain Bolt could be born again, we know where he would be and what he would be.

The Jamaican has completed his mission as the saviour of modern athletics. But on the night when he accomplished his triple treble in Rio de Janeiro, the team of his dreams was making a fresh start in Manchester United's Theatre of Dreams.

Yes, Bolt fancied himself as a football star. And yes, he once worked out with Man United's players, just for the fun of it.

And you know what? Jose Mourinho is on Usain's wavelength.

Given access to the biggest open purse in global football, Mourinho is going all out for the biggest, the tallest team in the Premier League. The new United team that beat Southampton 2-0 on Friday night had a spine of players standing comparison to Bolt's 1.95m build.

The most important words Mourinho spoke after Friday's match acknowledged that he has taken on a club with a culture built before him by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is every centimetre the equal of Bolt (and not far short in terms of ego and expression).

Marouane Fellaini is only slightly shorter, at 1.94m.

Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling and even the new Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Bailly are head and shoulders above the height of the average EPL player.

They do not, of course, move like the Lightning Bolt. But it is Mourinho's task to blend their talents. Spending the adidas, Chevrolet and TV money thrown at United is the easy part.

You think I exaggerate?

We might all have been mesmerised watching Bolt run the last leg of the Jamaican men's sprint relay to win his ninth and final Olympic gold medal.

And most of us know that he did, genuinely, yearn to be a Red Devil. As recently as a couple of years ago, he actually did join in a training session at Carrington, the United training ground.

If there is one thing United lack at the moment, it is cutting-edge acceleration. Luke Shaw has it from full-back, Anthony Martial has it on the wing. But in general what United have in spades is power.

Zlatan and Pogba and Wayne Rooney all have it.

Did you see Ibrahimovic leap for that opening goal against Southampton? The way that he "read" the mind of Rooney, the anticipation with which he positioned himself 10 yards in front of goal, waiting for that old-fashioned cross from Rooney.

The timing with which Ibra rose: Taller, higher, stronger than a thoroughly decent central defender, Jose Fonte.

Finally, the power, the direction with which Ibrahimovic headed the ball well out of the reach of goalkeeper Fraser Forster (2.01m if you are wondering) to score the first Ibra goal in the theatre of his ageing dream.

It said it all when United had a penalty shortly afterwards, and Mr Ibrahimovic stepped up ahead of United's long-term captain and regular penalty taker Rooney to take the spot kick.

According to Mourinho, the three principal characters of the new United (Rooney, Ibrahimovic and Pogba) worked it out for themselves. The pecking order of penalty takers would start and end with the Swede, provided the big man was on the pitch. It never occurred to him, or to anyone else, that he might miss. He didn't.

That was game over, bar the chances that came and were missed towards the end of a pretty easy home win. Southampton put in a tidy performance, even created more opportunities than United, but with Sadio Mane sold by the Saints to Liverpool and Graziano Pelle moving to the Chinese club Shandong Luneng, Southampton looked toothless up front.

It is early in the new season. Southampton does this every year, building a team, rising up the ladder, then selling players and trying to rebuild again.

United, from time to time, spend on a par with Real Madrid, and since the end of the Alex Ferguson era change managers as casually as most people change clothes.

Now it is Mourinho's turn, and spending (so far) almost S$300 million makes it his team, his amalgam of skill and power and tactical acumen to try to win the league, and beyond that to reclaim United's worldly prowess.

"We need to get used to winning," Ibrahimovic said on Friday, automatically becoming the TV voice and face of the team that wins. "The mental part is always important. I am new to the culture here, Paul (Pogba) is back home but also new, and there are others (Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan) who are new as well.

"Everything is now like a big puzzle, we have to get to know that puzzle."

But already there are early signs of integration. Pogba, after barely one week's training with United, looked for Ibrahimovic with his long and rangy passes - and looked completely undaunted by his landmark £89 million (S$156.7 million) price tag.

The most important words Mourinho spoke after Friday's match acknowledged that he has taken on a club with a culture built before him by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.

"It has to be evolution," Mourinho said. "We cannot be the same that United was in the 1980s, but there is a certain nature that belongs to this club."

Indeed, there is. It is based on adventure, on daring to risk by going forward to outscore the opponents.

Mourinho's caution means that he is unlikely to forsake safety-first, clean sheets as a defensive priority. But there is no point in spending so much to acquire Pogba and then shackle him.

France surprisingly made that mistake at the Euros two months ago. Pogba started that tournament as a headstrong colossus, striding forward out of defence. But Didier Deschamps, the French coach, became defensive towards the later stages and stifled his midfield giant into more of an anchor role, bolstering the defence.

Pogba can do that, but he is far better as a free spirit. A Usain Bolt running forward, backing himself to beat the rest.

"He needs that freedom," Mourinho said of Pogba. If the coach sees it like that, and sticks to his word when the better opponents line up at Old Trafford, there should be more devil in the red shirts from here on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Mourinho's troops are ready to stand tall'. Print Edition | Subscribe