The most pointed cheer on a sodden Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford came as Marcus Rashford left the pitch after 83 minutes of this 2-0 victory, that familiar, loping trot to the sidelines drawing a great barrelling wave of electricity around the home stands.
On days like these the solution to United’s ongoing stodginess can look fairly straightforward. Never mind the shadow of a passing era, the corporate emptiness at the top, the sense at times of a grand, ailing steamship burning its motors trying to right itself. For an hour United not only stretched the league leaders out of shape, but also looked a vibrant, snappy, belligerent team thanks to a combination of midfield muscle, the craft (and left hand) of Ander Herrera and above all genuine speed and movement in attack.
Rashford was the key. Starting at centre forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence, he was irresistible at times. At others he was simply a hugely effective part of this team, skittering right across the front line, using his pace not just in pursuit of the ball but to open space for team-mates, forcing Gary Cahill and David Luiz back towards their own goal. Behind him Herrera and Paul Pogba found a little more space to pick a pass and assert their own qualities, muscling N’Golo Kanté to the fringes of the game.
Above all, playing at Rashford-speed, United lit the place up. On a damp, grey Easter Sunday Old Trafford had an air of dankness about it before kick-off. Those craning corrugated stands were packed out as ever. But there is something that still hangs over this ground, a faint mildewing at the edges. Even the banners around the tiers look a little worn, products of a previous age: Giggs, Fergie, impossible dreams, trophies.
There is an ongoing oddity to United in the post-Fergie era. Despite chewing through three managers and hundreds of millions in transfers, United have been disappointing in exactly the same way season after season: trapped, fraught, lukewarm, a cumbersome team playing with its shoulders hunched. Where does it come from, this stifled quality? Is it tactical? A structural inevitability?
Maybe the solution really is as simple as a little speed and youth. When was the last time United had a regular centre-forward who was genuinely quick? Wayne Rooney, when he was quick-ish? Louis Saha and Danny Welbeck had their moments, as did Cristiano Ronaldo when he played as an everywhere-striker.
It is a measure of the slightly furred arteries of the current attack that despite his goalscoring Ibrahimovic has come in for some criticism, accused by some of smothering the team. A little harsh perhaps given so many of Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals have been vital. But you get the idea. In a slightly directionless team Ibrahimovic is just too much, too alluringly charismatic as a focus for every attack.
Still, United’s team here drew a degree of head-scratching, with Ibrahimovic brooding among the subs and a starting XI with 12 league goals between them this season. For Rashford the season has brought a vicious cycle. Deprived of regular starts, his confidence has dipped. After six months without a league goal he now has two in two. This wasn’t about goals though, as much as movement and tempo.
From the start Rashford dropped deep and wriggled with an electric grace between the lines. The rest of the time he was ready to zoom off the back of Cahill and David Luiz, as he did for the opening goal. Chelsea will complain, rightly, that Herrera blocked Nemanja Matic’s pass with a hand in the build-up. But the through pass was beautifully judged, David Luiz exposed by Rashford’s run between the centre backs, and the finish was low and true.
And so it went on, Rashford a constant gliding focus for red-shirted attacks, while behind him United made the midfield a battleground, Marouane Fellaini clattering into opponents, ball bouncing off his knees, thighs, chest. At times it was like having a very angry but surprisingly effective and skilful dairy cow on the pitch, but Fellaini rattled the league leaders.
Kanté looked stretched, a player who thrives on tight spaces, knowing his areas in which to snap and snipe, but who is less effective when the game is more stretched and the pitch bigger.
Rashford was quieter in the second half, although with 20 minutes to go he sprinted from the halfway line, held off David Luiz twice and almost whipped the goal of the month low past Asmir Begovic’s right hand. Behind him Pogba enjoyed the extra space, easing around the pitch making tackles and using the ball well. Herrera capped a fine game by scoring the second goal with a low shot that bounced high into the net off Kanté’s ankle.
It might be pushing it to suggest a chasing here could induce a collapse in the title run-in. Chelsea’s remaining fixtures still look kind. Of more concern, perhaps, is the way United exposed a little vulnerability in that hitherto impregnable defensive wedge. Others will try to replicate the way Rashford ran off the shoulder of the left and right central defenders, untracked by a pair of underperforming wing-backs,
As ever, knowing what to do is one thing, being able to put it into practice another. For now this was simply an afternoon for United to take heart from the spirit, vim and above all the speed of their attacking play as the season enters an endgame on two fronts.