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Man Utd and Mourinho’s first match: Five things we learned from Wigan friendly

| 18.07.2016

Holly Thackeray | July 17, 2016

And so, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United reign got off to a winning pre-season start, as the Portuguese patrolled the sidelines in a 2-0 friendly win over Wigan Athletic – just days before the Red Devils depart for their eagerly awaited China tour.

While, in East Asia United will face much sterner tests against German giants Borussia Dortmund and local rivals Manchester City, but there was plenty for pundits and fans alike to get their teeth into at the DW Stadium.

New manager Mourinho’s project is still in its early stages and ironing out creases, but the blueprint was clear in this Latics liason.

So, without further ado, here are five things we learned from the friendly fray…

Mkhitaryan menace suits new style

New addition Henrikh Mkhitaryan didn’t take long to show vociferous travelling fans just why he was worth forking out around £28m for, displaying an exciting passing range – almost resulting in an opening goal for toiling Memphis Depay, who found the delivery with his wrong foot.

Probing through balls, scooped passes, sweeping low crosses and neat one-twos, Mkhitaryan couldn’t have done much more in his time on the pitch, apart from score.

A blaze over the bar from a lovely Jesse Lingard cross aside, the intelligent Armenia international took up the number 10 position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, roaming to the right to frequently link up with his new English teammate.

The Red Devils (7/2 with Coral to win the 2016/17 Premier League) were far from free-flowing in the first-half as they dominated possession against the freshly promoted Championship team, still trying to shake off rustiness and the remnants of Louis van Gaal’s tenure.

Though, there were signs that the reins had be loosened by Mourinho, especially after the break, with notably quicker movement. If Mkhitaryan can build on this promising cameo, it looks as though United finally have the creative midfield fulcrum they’ve been craving for some time. Perhaps he is saving his first goal for the next match – a meeting with his former club!

“I was trying to feel comfortable. I think day by day it will be better,” Mkhitaryan stated after his unofficial first outing.

“I am trying, because the first days are always very difficult. You have to get to know your team-mates and their qualities, so I am trying to learn everything very quickly. Game by game it will be better and better.”

Bailly brilliance on the ball an asset

It wasn’t just Mkhitaryan impressing Mourinho’s red and white army, however, as another fresh recruit in Eric Bailly also took the chance to tease the crowd with his talent.

The Ivory Coast centre back showed little sign of first day nerves as he partnered Daley Blind in the backline, looking strong and assured on the ball.

For any fan concerned that ball-playing centre half John Stones looks set for Man City, it seems as though Chris Smalling finally has a partner to complement his more traditional defending style.

Bailly treated the crowd to a real skill show, as he helped build attacks from the back with precise passes, and also took the time to cheer spectators by bringing down a high ball with top technique, flicking it over his head before laying it off expertly to the wings.

If the Red Devils rearguard is to help support midfield, Bailly looks as though he has no intention of arriving at Old Trafford to sit on the bench.

Tuanzebe a talent to watch out for

Fans perhaps didn’t get as much of a glimpse of highly-rated teenage centre half Axel Tuanzebe as they might have wished, but the Congo-born English centre back’s cameo boded well for the Red Devils’ rearguard future.

The Mancunian club have been linked with a move for West Ham United defensive prospect Reece Oxford, but Mourinho may have been given second thoughts, as he clearly has a top talent already on his hands at Old Trafford.

Looking calm and composed, a trend from recent Man Utd graduates such as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Marcus Rashford when propelled into the first XI, there is the promise of much more to come.

Even the ‘Special One’ sang the youngster’s praises, telling media after the match: “You can play 90 minutes or one minute. Sometimes one minute is enough.

“With Axel, 10 minutes is enough! The potential is there, you see it immediately.” Could an official debut be on the cards sooner than expected?

Pereira deserves to be picked

Tuanzebe wasn’t the only Red Devils youth product to have his praises sung by the Portuguese coach, however, as midfielder Andreas Pereira, operating slightly further back in midfield than when previously seen in the Man Utd first team, sealed the Wigan win with a second goal. And it was spectacular.

Drilling in from a set-piece rebound, the Belgian-born Brazil Under-23 international reminded of the natural talent which seemed to have been shelved under Van Gaal. Though, amid rumoured interest in the 20-year-old from Leicester City, Mourinho will soon have to decide how, or if, he is to be integrated into the first team.

On the slim pickings of the Samba starlet’s showing here and previously, Pereira certainly deserves the chance to show more of what is in his box of tricks ahead of older players with arguably lesser ceilings – lest United find themselves in another Paul Pogba-esque conundrum.

Mourinho, at least, appears to have spotted Pereira’s potential, stating: “Andreas has an amazing talent, he has incredible vision and incredible technique.”

While, in a further boost for Mourinho, who is oft criticised for his approach to younger players, full backs Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Luke Shaw, finally returning from his long injury lay-off after a leg break, also looked potent down the defensive flanks.

Mata would be missed but new midfielder needed

For all the talk of Juan Mata’s apparent impending departure to Everton or back to La Liga, the Spanish plotter continues to prove he can contribute to Man Utd’s silverware charge.

The opposition may have proven no great shakes, but it was modest Mata whose pressing and self-less pass after an awful goalkeeping error crafted the first goal of Mourinho’s tenure, setting up striker Will Keane for the opener.

Underlining his effectiveness as a team player, Mata also played a part in the second goal, and the prospect of seeing him pull the strings next to Mkhitaryan behind still rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic must be appealing to Mourinho, who previously shipped off the playmaker when at Chelsea.

This is a different set-up and team, however, so fans will be hoping smart passer Mata gets a fair shot.

Wigan Athletic v Manchester United - Pre-Season Friendly - DW Stadium

While, starting midfield picks Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick failed to stand out against the Championship team, highlighting the need for a quicker thinking and passing midfield addition this summer. With the likes of Maroaune Fellaini and Morgan Schneiderlin unlikely to provide much of an upgrade to the area upon their returns, the centre of the park is evidently in need of attention.

We also noticed Phil Jones’ new hairstyle, but the less said about that the better…


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Holly Thackeray

Holly is a member of the content team, and can often be found on the sports desk writing about favourite topics Serie A and East Asian footballing nations. A recent darts convert, she is also a fully-fledged member of Barney's Army and a proud Leeds-born Manchester United fan.