Manchester United fans have had plenty of things to complain about in recent years but, at a club with a cavalier spirit at heart, nothing has quite crushed the soul like the joyless, pedestrian, monotone football that had become a fixture under consecutive managers.
Sir Alex Ferguson worked to four central pillars – pace, power, penetration and unpredictability. But, unless you count the speed with which his successors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were ushered towards the exit door, speed – of thought, movement and execution – has been in woefully short supply at Old Trafford for far too long.
In that respect, Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Chelsea represented a sort of escapism, a throwback to happier times when the word “risk” was not treated with inherent suspicion and the players actually looked like they believed in what they were being asked to do. After multiple seasons of slow, static, one-paced football, United suddenly had a surfeit of players with pace to burn and the semblance of a framework in which to properly showcase it.
No one, of course, should be getting carried away. Just as a bright 90 minutes does not guarantee a corner has been turned, so United’s flaws are not going to be ironed out over the course of one afternoon and Chelsea, remember, asked plenty of questions in the first half. Indeed, any United fan already getting drunk with giddiness might want to bear in mind that bogey side Wolverhampton Wanderers are up next at Molineux, where they lost twice last season, and are unlikely to leave the sort of wide open spaces to exploit that a naive Chelsea did.
It is also worth recalling that United swept away accommodating opposition 4-0 at home in the opening game of Mourinho’s second season but a swashbuckling win over West Ham United proved no portent to a new era of attacking football.
Old Trafford likes its football fast and furious, though, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s determination to properly harness the pace running through this United team now certainly makes them a more dangerous, entertaining and intriguing proposition, particularly when they hit on the break. There were no more than 16 seconds between United winning possession and scoring for each of their four goals against Chelsea.
From Scott McTominay – almost from a position on his own byline – finding Paul Pogba to Daniel James sweeping home United’s fourth, there were just four passes and nine touches of the ball. The whole operation took 14.6 seconds to execute, marginally less than the 15.9 seconds from Harry Maguire poking the ball to McTominay to Anthony Martial claiming the second goal.
James’s pace is of the frightening variety – his 30-yard dash to give Pogba a pass for his debut goal underlined that – and team-mates have already nicknamed him “The Flash”. The challenge for the young Wales winger is to ensure he learns how to consistently use that pace effectively: United need a Son Heung-min type, not an Adama Traore.
It was interesting yesterday to hear former Yeovil Town manager Darren Way, who had tried to bring James on loan to the then League Two club from Swansea City only 12 months ago, suggest the 21-year-old sometimes resembled “a speedboat with no driver”. But James’s exceptional attitude singles him out as a player eager to listen and learn.
Marcus Rashford offered a neat illustration to James about how destructive pace can be when allied to brains with his movement and run for United’s third goal from Pogba’s sublime ball.
It is not just going forward, though, that United are quick. Aaron Wan-Bissaka looked like he was on roller skates when surging back to thwart Ross Barkley and equally rapid when darting forward from right-back and then there is the more deceptive pace of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, who was quicker even than Pogba in some of the pre-season sprint tests.
Maguire read the game so well against Chelsea that there was no need to rely on speed but his former centre-back partner at Leicester City, Jonny Evans, suggested the England defender “has got explosive pace people don’t see”.
“He is tailor-made for Man United,” Evans added.
Maguire and Wan-Bissaka have certainly strengthened United’s foundations, which will prove critical if Solskjaer is going to take chances. It was interesting to see the manager change tactics at half-time, when United largely abandoned their high press in favour of a low block that involved pressing only once Chelsea entered their half. Chelsea were managing an average of just 7.71 passes before United sought to win the ball back in the first period but 11.23 in the second as Solskjaer allowed his opponents more time to build from defence before springing the trap. And that plan would not have worked without the pace at his disposal.