The passion and drama of José Mourinho’s first meeting in English football with Pep Guardiola continues to feel fresh. The Manchester United manager tasted defeat against Guardiola’s City at Old Trafford on the Saturday before last and the wounds remain raw.
There is little doubt that the 2-1 Premier League reverse served to puncture the optimism that had swelled at United in the wake of Mourinho’s arrival. Now, the game is afoot once more.
The EFL Cup fourth round will be headlined by United’s tie against City at Old Trafford, after both clubs smoothed their passage into it with away victories. City got the job done at Swansea City and Mourinho’s team were too strong for Northampton Town, albeit after a performance that contained its share of imperfections.
Mourinho was prickly afterwards, which was not entirely surprising, given how United had wobbled towards the end of the first half and the manner in which they had laboured for penetration until the introduction of Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 54th minute. It was all a bit Louis van Gaal.
But his target was a surprise. Mourinho chose to highlight Jak McCourt’s scything tackle through the back of Memphis Depay in the 47th minute, for which the Northampton midfielder was booked. It provoked a sulky monologue from the Portuguese, which was underpinned by the hint of conspiracy. “Normally, it is easier against 10 men and we should have been playing against 10 men very early in the second half,” Mourinho said.
Northampton had equalised Michael Carrick’s opening goal through Alex Revell’s penalty, which was awarded after Daley Blind had nibbled at Sam Hoskins, and Mourinho was asked whether he thought the decision had been correct. “I think I should stop to speak about referees’ decisions,” Mourinho said. “And I think I should just be waiting for you to speak about them with honest visions and with the dishonest visions. I told about the red card [for Northampton] because it was really a dangerous situation.
“I’m not speaking about the penalty against Man City [not given to Wayne Rooney after Claudio Bravo’s tackle]. I am speaking about the situation where we could have had an important injury and even in this situation … ” He tailed off. “I should stop and leave it with you,” he said. “Some honest, some dishonest.”
His body language during the game and his words in a flash interview with Sky Sports after it – which he gave before the City draw had been made – betrayed a man with frustrations and grievances. He did not speak to the press and so we will have to wait for his reaction to the next Manchester derby.He had arrived in Northampton against a backdrop of dissatisfaction. After the City loss had come two more against Feyenoord in the Europa League and Watford and, for only the third time in his managerial career, he was staring at the possibility of a fourth consecutive defeat.
Mourinho had openly criticised some of his players, star names had underperformed and confidence was low. Another setback was unthinkable. Mercifully for Mourinho and the club, they found the means to pull out of the nose dive and it owed much to his call for the cavalry.
On came Rashford and Ibrahimovic, and United found the extra gear. The crucial second goal was all about the precision and technique of Ander Herrera but Rashford had set up the shooting opportunity for him and it was Rashford himself who scored the clinching third.
It said much that Mourinho had to summon two of his big-name attackers in the quest to break down League One opposition and there were other aspects of the evening that would have grated with him. Marcos Rojo failed to inspire confidence at left-back and there were nervous moments for some of the other defenders in the first-half, namely Tim Fosu-Mensah and Blind.
Further forward, Wayne Rooney ran his socks off to little effect. Mourinho had started him as the No9 in his 4-3-3 formation, in what felt like a show of faith but, twice, the captain strayed offside when well-placed. In the early running, he had shot straight at Northampton’s goalkeeper Adam Smith. Rooney was moved to the right when Ibrahimovic came on and it felt emblematic to see him shunted to the side when the tie was won.
On the other hand, United did set the tempo and dominate possession and, in the end, the result was not only all important but comfortable. Carrick made a positive impression on his return to the team for his first action since the Community Shield and Rashford remains the man who can make something happen.
Mourinho made nine changes from the Watford defeat – Rooney and Chris Smalling were the only survivors – and Paul Pogba was left out of the squad.
United went ahead after Smith picked up a backpass and Rooney’s free-kick hit the Northampton wall and then broke to Carrick, who promptly fired a first-time, right-footed shot into the far corner of the net.
Fosu-Mensah had headed against the crossbar but he was beaten by Kenji Gorré in the 39th minute, who lashed a shot against the top of the United bar. Herrera had advertised his goal when he hit the post from distance after 59 minutes and Rashford had the final word, after Smith panicked under Herrera’s high ball.