Romelu Lukaku ends scoring drought as Man United edge past Bournemouth
MANCHESTER -- Three thoughts on Man United's 1-0 win at home over Bournemouth on Wednesday evening.
1. Man United wrap up unconvincing win
One assumes that manager Jose Mourinho instructed his Manchester United players to celebrate this victory quietly and with the utmost respect. Indeed, anything beyond a few quick handshakes might have felt inappropriate for this thoroughly unconvincing 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, a game won by a first-half Romelu Lukaku header but with not much else to recommend it.
United were just as poor as they were against Manchester City at the weekend when they at least had the excuse of playing against the best team in the country. Three points are three points, and this win was needed after the defeat to City, but it wasn't a performance that anybody will remember with any fondness.
There were a couple of surprises in Mourinho's starting XI, with Luke Shaw making a first league appearance since April (Daley Blind and Ashley Young were both on the bench) and young midfielder Scott McTominay starting a league game for just the second time.
Consequently, Bournemouth were much the better team in the opening 20 minutes: indeed, they were dominant for a spell, a pair of raspers from Charlie Daniels and Dan Gosling forcing goalkeeper David de Gea to do what he does. But with their first chance of any consequence, United took the lead. Juan Mata shifted the ball onto his left foot on the corner of the area, dinked a cross to the far post and Lukaku found enough space between two defenders to rise and send a header into the top corner. It was Lukaku's first league goal in nearly a month and just his second since September.
The remainder of the half was frustratingly scrappy, the ball shuttled between the two teams in the middle of the pitch with neither seeming especially keen on keeping it for an extended period. On the touchline, Mourinho hunched under his hood, the slushy falling snow and biting cold matching his mood and that of most inside Old Trafford.
The opening spells of the second half weren't much better, as Bournemouth's attacks broke down too often and United couldn't quite find their fluency. That said, Anthony Martial missed a virtual open goal, slicing over with goalkeeper Asmir Begovic elsewhere, and the France international's replacement Marcus Rashford thundered a shot into the crossbar from way out. Half an inch lower and it would have been a goal of the season contender.
As the minutes ticked by and United failed to pad their lead, the atmosphere became more and more tense. Bournemouth's attacks, even those that had little promise, felt like bigger threats, and Mourinho's decision to retreat slightly by bringing Ander Herrera on for Jesse Lingard was a little surprising.
A noticeable number of home fans decided not to brave the ugly conditions and stay sensibly at home, but those who did attend urged United to "Attack! Attack! Attack!" They didn't, ultimately, but they held on for the win.
2. Mata, Lukaku click nicely
Taking the glass-half-full approach, you could say this is why Manchester United bought Lukaku. Their struggle to break down "smaller" teams last season was a repeated frustration, and his talent for finding the net against such opposition could prove extremely valuable.
The irritation is that Lukaku didn't manage a goal against Manchester City at the weekend, or against Chelsea in November, or Liverpool in October. The derisive cliche about Lukaku is that he doesn't score enough "big" goals, but this season at least, is that his fault? Mourinho's approach in those big games is not conducive to keeping a centre-forward who thrives on good service steadily supplied with good crosses or incisive through-balls. Lukaku tends to be very isolated in those games so it might be harsh to blame him excessively for that.
Another factor might be Juan Mata. There admittedly is a sense that the Spain midfielder isn't quick enough, that he is a footballer built for a more considered age, an elegant 12" record in a Spotify world. He undoubtedly slows down play; the question then is whether what he does with the ball is good enough to compensate.
Mata might also be good for Lukaku, too. His cross for the opening goal was perfect for the striker: it also meant he's now set up Lukaku's last two league goals. He was also in the team for most of Lukaku's brilliant run at the start of the season, when he scored 10 goals in the opening nine games.
Getting the best from the group of players he has is a tricky business for Mourinho and you can understand why he chooses Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together, but Mata offers something different and, crucially, perhaps gets the most from United's most consistent goal threat.
3. Bournemouth miss a golden opportunity
The odd thing about this Man United side, and perhaps something that you wouldn't expect from one that Mourinho manages, is that this season, they have tended to give teams a chance. In the opening stages on Wednesday night, Bournemouth were well on top just as Newcastle were at Old Trafford in November. But just like Newcastle, they didn't capitalise on their dominance, spurning chances and being just a little too tentative in their attacks despite having plenty of them.
You can see why Eddie Howe chose not to start with Jermain Defoe up front: the latter isn't the most physical presence in a game that would very likely be spent on the back foot but in retrospect, Howe might regret his choice.
Defoe is in some ways the perfect man to start in these games, when chances might be infrequent and those that do come along simply must be put away. Defoe is a much more reliable finisher than Callum Wilson, who did start and whose three goals this season all came in one game (against Huddersfield). His implausibly brilliant strike against Crystal Palace recently is a case in point: at 35 he's still capable of producing something from nothing.
This was a creditable performance from Howe's men and few would expect them to have taken anything from it but with more reliable finishing, they might have done just that.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.