It had to happen at some point. Before this weekend, Manchester United had been in sixth place since Dec. 3, some 105 days ago. Everton’s win on Saturday briefly pushed them down to seventh, but this 3-1 win over Middlesbrough has now taken them to the vertiginous heights of fifth.
Goals from Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia were just about enough to secure the necessary points to climb above Arsenal, but the victory was not as comfortable as the score suggested.
The last 15 minutes were much closer than they should have been against a Middlesbrough team whose goal, scored by substitute Rudy Gestede, was only their 20th of the league season; Boro hadn’t scored twice in a game since December and not at all in the last four games.
Jose Mourinho has never been a manager excessively fond of aesthetics, but at the moment he seems to almost delight in collecting difficult and unattractive victories. After he complained last week that United’s schedule was tiring his players out, his starting line-up a looked part necessity, part protest.
Without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the injured Paul Pogba, Mourinho nonetheless left Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench and set out his side in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Marcus Rashford supported up front by Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard.
The early stages showed a Middlesbrough side, managed for the first time by Steve Agnew after Aitor Karanka left the club on Thursday, with much more dynamism and David De Gea was forced into a fine save from a Grant Leadbitter shot.
But after an initial spell of home pressure it was United that gained control of the game. Victor Valdes was forced into a couple of brilliant saves from Rashford and Valencia, before the visitors took the lead on the half-hour mark.
Ashley Young, playing at left wing-back, made space on the flank and cut in on his right foot to deliver a perfect cross to the back post, where Fellaini was waiting to nod home. Boro’s saving grace this season has been their defence, but that was a troublingly simple and avoidable goal to concede from their point of view.
Boro also started the second-half in good style, but failed to create any significant chances and were ultimately punished on the counter-attack. Mata brought the ball forward, passed on to Lingard and, as the Boro defence backed off meekly, he picked out the top corner from 25 yards. For long spells Lingard can make you wonder how he is a regular at a team like United, then he produces a goal like that.
Mourinho decided a 2-0 lead was plenty and withdrew Mata in favour of Marcos Rojo. The uber-defensive approach looked like it might have backfired with 14 minutes left, when Chris Smalling’s six-yard-box slip gave Gestede a chance he could barely miss.
The hosts’ pressure built, only to be relieved by a moment of slapstick calamity. Valdes slipped while attempting a clearance and the dogged Valencia ran the ball over the line. Mourinho leapt up and down on the touchline, then bounced straight down the tunnel, job done.