After a disappointing August, we had a tough month ahead of us in September with home games against Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as two Champions League games. As the old saying goes: ‘You can’t win the league in September, but you can definitely lose it’. My hope was to still be unbeaten by the end of the month and hope to not be too far off the pace at the top of the league.
Firstly, we welcomed Antonio Conte and his Chelsea team to Old Trafford. I decide to go with the Away formation with the two DMs as they are top of the league with 3 wins from their first 3 league games. After the disappointing result against West Ham, I’ve reverted the front three roles to their original state, with Mata in the middle of Lingard and Mkhitaryan.
The opening stages of the game were fairly cagey, with both me and Conte trying to sniff out the opposition while keeping it tight. Most of our opportunities were coming from long shots until Mata and Ibra exchanged passes on the edge of the box before the latter released Mkhitaryan who puts it top corner. First blood to the men in red, with it 1-0 after 24 minutes. That lead did not last long though as, in the 27th minute, Hazard surprised everyone by pretending to shot from a free kick and instead placing a through ball to Pedro who’s first time shot surprised De Gea and beat him at his front post. We immediately restored our lead when Mata stormed into the United box, got dispossessed by Mikel, only for the ball to fall to Ibrahimovic who makes no mistake from around 10 yards out. Our lead was nearly doubled 10 minutes later as a speculative shot from Lingard crashes against the crossbar. We went into the break ahead, and we looked good for our lead. Shortly after half time, the game was killed off by, not a goal, but a red card for Marcos Alonso. Conte had to shuffle his pack but it meant that our greater numbers in midfield could hold on to the ball and tire out our opponents. The remaining part of the game fizzled out as we were happy to be in front and it appeared that Chelsea just did not want to concede any more. The final whistle blew and I was satisfied that we had drawn first blood in the title race, as this was the first meeting for any of the top sides.
Our midweek game after the Chelsea win was a visit to Old Trafford from Dinamo in the Europa League. With this game only 3 days before a trip to Burnley I decided to rest majority of the first team squad. I did not know much about our opponents but decided that we should still have too much for them. Our Premier League title challenge should be more important than the Europa League. Only Bailly, Pogba and Mkhi kept their places from the Chelsea game.
We got off to a flyer and 20 seconds in, we were nearly ahead as Depay forced the keeper into a smart save. The deadlock was broken on the 20 minute mark when a Rooney shot from just inside the area was deflected into the opposite corner. We were forced to make a change as Rashford was injured after 28 minutes and brought on Zlatan to lead the line. 5 minutes later, our lead was doubled through Depay, who’s near post shot was too powerful for the keeper, who really needs to get down the gym. By half time, we had 20 shots on the Dinamo goal and I was hopeful for more goals in the second half. It took us 10 minutes in the second half to get the 3rd goal but we did through Ibra, who was found on the edge of the box by Herrera, before curling the ball past the keeper. I thought that would be the goal of the game until 2 minutes later when Ibra got our 4th and his second when he smashed home a half volley from a Mkhitaryan cross. Our dominance was starting to show and I made the remaining two changes to rest both Jones and Pogba, with Rojo and Schneiderlein coming on. Mkhi capped off his display just after the hour mark when he forced his way into box and blasted it past the keeper to make it 5. With a quarter of an hour to go, Ibrahimovic completed his first hat trick for United with a first time shot from the edge of the area. He was definitely having fun in this game. We went asleep for the remainder of the game and our record was spoiled by a headed consolation goal from the visitors. They didn’t deserve the goal but we cannot afford to fall asleep at set pieces. In the end we won 6-1 which was great, seeing as Dinamo are supposed to be our nearest rivals in this group.
For our trip to Burnley we reverted to full strength but with Martial still recovering, I opted for Memphis as he scored midweek. I hoped that Zlatan coming on early in the game and players like Mkhi and Bailly playing 90 minutes would not mean that they would be tired for this game. Although I had my fingers crossed that Ibra had brought his midweek form with him to Lancashire.
As with the Dinamo game, it was all us for the first half hour of the game but with no real clear cut chance to write home about. This was punished by a goal from Andre Gray from a George Boyd through ball. This is the first time that the team had been behind under my stewardship and I was interested to see how they would react. Brilliantly, was the answer as Schweinsteiger placed a long ball over the top for Ibra to chase who finished well from close range. This is how the game stayed right up until the last 5 minutes. Nothing that I could do seemed to change anything as we wasted opportunity after opportunity. However, the marking of champions is that they can ground out results and on the 85th minute, Ibra squared the ball to Mata around 25 yards out whose fierce shot struck the post before hitting the back of the net. Burnley tried to come back at us, and we were grateful when the final whistle was blown and we had the 3 points in the bag! What a perfect start to the month!
Our 4th game of this action packed month was a trip to the AMEX Stadium, and Brighton, in the EFL Cup. Again, I would rest some key first team players and give a chance to those trying to break into the starting eleven. This also happened to include Martial who was back in first team training and would get a chance up top with Rashford still injured with a broken toe. Other than this, as you can see, the side is mostly made up the same as the Dinamo game.
The early exchanges were very both sided and I totally underestimated the quality of the Brighton side. This was put to the back of my mind however when Rooney smashed home a free kick from the edge of the area for his first goal of the season. Although the game was fairly level, we went into half time having had 25 shots to their 2. I hoped that we wouldn’t rule these chances come the final whistle. My fears were allayed when on 59 minutes, the free kick duties were passed to Mata, who bettered Rooney’s earlier strike to put us 2-0 up! We were already dreaming of a great cup run, but were brought straight back down to earth when Manu finished a low driven cross from Murphy to halve our lead. I brought on some first teamers in Mkhi and Depay. This quality showed come the final stages of the game when an early Luke Shaw cross was finished by Mkhitaryan at the back post to restore our 2 goal lead. This is how the game finished, and put us through to the 4th round, where we would face an away trip to League One side Oxford. The only team still in the competition who were outside the top two leagues in the country, I was confident about our chances of progressing further than the next round.
The following weekend we welcomed another title challenger to Old Trafford in the form of Arsenal. I hoped to combat the presence of Ozil and Sanchez with dropping the CMs back into the DM positions used in the away formation. I also switched to the counter strategy even though we were at home. I hoped to soak up the pressure and then unleash hell on a counter attack. This was definitely a game that we could not afford to lose.
Any worries I had about not winning this game were crushed after three minutes where Pogba laid a through ball to Mata who beat Cech at his near post. This was already our 4th shot of the game and we were massively on top despite using our counter strategy. Memphis nearly doubling our lead just a minute later. Our lead was extended on 8 minutes when Mata turned provided to Ibra who again beat Cech at his near post. (Had we found a weakness in the legendary keeper’s game?!) We had to wait nearly 30 minutes before we scored our 3rd goal of the game, but this time it was Depay who was waiting at the back post with a simple tap in. The end of the half was spoiled, however, when Arsenal had their first shot on our goal, with Perez finishing off a nice move from Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right hand side. Arsenal came out in the second half willing to put up a fight and I was happy to push further back, and defend our lead before they run out of steam. As the game was reaching its final stages, we started pushing further forward again, and Mkhitaryan capped his excellent game with a great counter attacking goal. Upon receipt of the ball from Ibra, he turned his marker like he wasn’t there and took a shot which nestled in the top left hand corner of the goal. It was a fully deserved second goal of the season for the Armenian. Arsenal had the last say in the game, as we had believed the game to be dead. With 10 minute to go, Sanchez had a speculative pop shot which was deflected in by Smalling. I was disappointed with this as it was the first time we had conceded 2 since the draw away at West Ham. However we were still unbeaten and climbing up that table like nobody’s business. Who said that you couldn’t win the league in September?! We had beaten two of our rivals and we were on top of the world.
We completed the month with an away trip to Romania in the Europa League. Having just played Arsenal and a trip to White Hart Lane coming up in 3 days, again the first teamers were rested and the squad players were welcomed back. I hoped that another game up top for Martial would help with his recovery as his match fitness was still very low.
This game was very dull and boring and another sign of us pulling out a result when we were not at our best. The first goal came from another Mata free kick, his 5th goal of the season. Shortly afterwards, our lead was doubled when Martial took a first time long shot following a good run from Lingard. I was pleased for the Frenchman to score as he looked terrifying before his injury. I just hoped that he could get back to that sharpness. We went into half time 2-0 up and the players looked like the game was already won. No real chances were created in the second half and we just wanted to be on that flight home to Manchester. We nodded off enough for Astra to score a consolation goal in the 82nd minute through some very slack defending, having had 3 chances to clear before the opposition striker could finish.
All in all, a very pleasing month: Unbeaten in both the league and Europe, as well as progressing to the next round of the EFL cup. I was slightly disappointed in no clean sheets as we managed to concede a goal in every game this month, including two late goals in Europe that we really should have stopped. I can’t complain though, and I can’t be the only one happy with our form as I was handed the Manager of the Month award!! Hopefully it is the first of many. The board seem slightly annoyed however that we are 3rd in the league and not top but surely it’s only a matter of time before that is corrected.