Manchester United moved up to fifth following their win at Riverside after spending most of the season in sixth place.
Manchester United’s eighteen-game unbeaten run in the League since October finally yielded some tangible results for Jose Mourinho as the club finally moved up beyond sixth place for the first time in over four months. Yes, the running joke just might be over…provided United manage to make further inroads into the top four. It was bound to happen, though. United are yet to go a ways before they regain the aura and swagger from the Ferguson years, but their run of results this season does indicate that at least the old stubbornness and solidity that opponents found so hard to dispel in years past is creeping back into Old Trafford.
5 – Manchester United will end the day inside the top 5 of the Premier League table for the first time in 184 days (16th Sept 2016). Climb. pic.twitter.com/bh7ORY0Vva
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 19, 2017
Specifically with respect to their win over Middlesbrough in Week 29, United showed they can survive without their bigger stars. Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Herrera – each crucial to most of the successes this season – were all absent on the day. Mourinho also surprisingly left out Martial and Mkhitaryan from the starting line-up. Doing the heavy-lifting in their places were the likes of Fellaini and Lingard, names that normally don’t inspire much confidence. The Portuguese most likely made his selections with an eye out on United’s almost preposterous April schedule. If they are at all to emerge relatively unscathed into May, he will have to dig deep into his squad to keep them fresh.
As it turns out, Fellaini and Lingard had a direct hand in the Riverside victory. Fellaini opened the scoring for United while Lingard nearly settled the tie with a stunning individual effort. United did allow Middlesbrough to mount a sustained attack in the final quarter of an hour, however. But an unexpected third goal buried Agnew’s side, and ensured United take a long-overdue promotion past sixth.
Jam-packed April fixture list makes it a challenge but United finally in contention for top-four
With nine games spread across April, punishing doesn’t quite cover it when describing United’s schedule in the coming month. The games include the two Europa quarterfinal clashes with Anderlecht scattered amidst crucial Premier League ties with Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City, amongst others. Now that United have finally moved off sixth, Mourinho will be anxious not to drop further points with eleven more games left in the season, even if he has an alternative route into Champions League football next year.
Man Utd are on the longest active unbeaten run in Europe's top 5 leagues – not losing in 18:
Conceded: 11 pic.twitter.com/hVkDAdZnUE
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 19, 2017
One thing that wouldn’t bother the manager overly is perhaps the options available to him within the squad. United’s supposed second string has performed adequately, if a little roughly, when called upon. Rashford may not be scoring, but his pace and direct approach created a number of chances against Boro. And Lingard’s tireless presence in midfield, and tendency to score in clutch games speaks of his increasing dependability. And Fellaini has clearly earned Mourinho’s trust as a reliable squad-player to prop up the midfield when needed.
The one area that might have Mourinho a little anxious is defence. Smalling still looks like he struggles to gain control at the back. Phil Jones fitness troubles continue to surface time and again. And there’s no regular starting player at left back. With Mourinho still unsure of his first choice backline, there’s always a sense that United are a bit wobbly there. No doubt it will be an area of prime focus in the upcoming transfer window. But for now the United manager will have to be content with merely papering over the cracks as best he can.
Mourinho on the packed schedule and competing on multiple fronts
The Manchester United boss spoke of United’s options to secure Champions League football next year:
“I prefer to win the Europa League because it gives us the same, Champions League football. And it also gives us a trophy, prestige, a European Super Cup final.
“But we still have two doors open to play Champions League football next season and that’s the good thing.”
On United’s busy fixture list and its impact on the players:
“It was too much for us – Rostov away, Chelsea with ten men, Rostov again and now Middlesbrough with injured players, tired players, suspended players.
“So we missed many players but we had great attitude and desire from the all the boys. The guys gave absolutely everything. It was a massive victory for us.”
— UtdHQ (@UtdHQ) March 19, 2017
Jesse Lingard, the standout player in Uniteds victory over Middlesbrough spoke on his first Premier League goal of the season:
“That was my first Prem goal so it was a long time coming. But I think the lads dug in deep today, a great victory and we’ll push on forwards now.”
On United moving past sixth:
“We have been there a very long time after a lot of games. We have dropped a few points with the draws that we had when we should have won, so it is good to move up finally and we have got to concentrate on the next game.”