Under Jose, United flexing their muscles again

Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates with midfielder Paul Pogba after scoring the team's second goal against Southampton last week. Both players were making their home debuts but were not afraid to impose themselves as leaders on t
Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates with midfielder Paul Pogba after scoring the team's second goal against Southampton last week. Both players were making their home debuts but were not afraid to impose themselves as leaders on the pitch.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Midfielder Roy Keane (left) and striker Eric Cantona celebrate a goal during Man United's 3-2 win over Man City in the 1995-96 season. The duo were both strong physically and technically, and observers believe Paul Pogba can dominate the midfield lik
Midfielder Roy Keane (left) and striker Eric Cantona celebrate a goal during Man United's 3-2 win over Man City in the 1995-96 season. The duo were both strong physically and technically, and observers believe Paul Pogba can dominate the midfield like Keane used to while Zlatan Ibrahimovic fits into the role once occupied by Cantona.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

LONDON • When Alex Ferguson ended a 26-year Manchester United title wait, it was because he found a formula.

The Scottish football manager's early United sides had flair and intent but did not stay the bruising course of the English Premier League and the teams of Ron Atkinson and other predecessors were the same.

Ferguson's trick was to develop a United that could outplay but also outmuscle the opposition.

In 1992-93 and 1993-94, he had players such as Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Roy Keane, who imposed themselves physically as well as technically.

Even Ferguson's wingers, Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe, were all about 1.80m tall.

Jose Mourinho was supposed to be the appointment that risked messing with Old Trafford traditions, but the early signs are that he understands what he has inherited very well.

PHYSICAL STYLE

The team is improving, the team is playing differently. I think even the fans, the way they react, it is not just because of their passion for the club, it is also because they are happy with the signs of this evolution.

JOSE MOURINHO, Man United manager, on reshaping the Red Devils this season.

The Portuguese's new United look like the Ferguson 1992-94 blueprint.

Whether they will prove as successful is another matter, but it is easy to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Cantona role, and Southampton found that Paul Pogba has returned with the intention of dominating Premier League midfields like Keane once did.

What is already true of Mourinho's United is they have more presence on the pitch than at any time since Ferguson retired.

In the final seconds of United's 2-0 win over Southampton on Friday, Southampton's Pierre-Emile Hojberg hoofed the ball away when United had a free kick and Ibrahimovic admonished him, while simultaneously Pogba was pointing and shouting to organise team-mates.

The new pair were the opposite of shy, even though both were starting at Old Trafford for the first time.

"They were what you know they are - big players. Zlatan is world class," said Eric Bailly, the United centre-back.

"It is a pleasure to play with him. Paul the same. They are very good for the team."

Should United win at Hull on Saturday they would go into the Manchester derby on the back of their best start to a league campaign in five years. And Mourinho argues he has already returned the team to something more similar to the Ferguson era than the sides of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

"You are going to lose points (in a season), the later the better. If you start losing points at the beginning of the season then you have to chase. So it is better not to lose points," he said, in relation to United making the kind of quick start in the title race associated with his successful Chelsea teams.

"But in this moment of our process, it is even more important to show evolution in our game. And I think we are showing that.

"I think anyone can say we are not playing superb, agree. But I think anyone can say there are differences in relation to the past two or three years.

"The team is improving, the team is playing differently.

"I think even the fans, the way they react, it is not just because of their passion for the club, it is also because they are happy with the signs of this evolution."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Under Jose, United flexing their muscles again'. Print Edition | Subscribe