The biggest source angst for Manchester United supporters in the post-Fergie era, above anything, was that they were no longer an attacking force.
Any iota of the menace going forward that hallmarked the Sir Alex Ferguson era – that blockbuster, swashbuckling ferocity in the opponent’s half – was effectively destroyed by David Moyes within a month.
And for three years, scant progress was made in cutting this Gordian’s knot, with Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho unable to shift the inexplicable inertia slowly depriving Old Trafford of the famous fear factor that placed visiting teams on the back-foot by default all those years ago.
Until now, that is. In Mourinho’s second season, coming off the back of winning the Europa League in May and a successful pre-season, United have been utterly ruthless in front of goal, claiming 16 goals in their opening five Premier League games – an average of over three a game and nearly 30% of last season’s meek total already.
Their latest demolition against Everton was, while far from their most attractive, perhaps the most impressive. Mourinho’s men were unconvincing for large parts, clearly struggling to produce the same momentum guaranteed by the injured Paul Pogba, yet they still won 4-0 and, amazingly, could have scored even more.
The contrast with last year couldn’t be more pronounced: the fatalism that shrouded United’s attacking movements has been replaced with a kind of goalscoring frenzy.
There is a greater level of control and prowess about this United team when they hold the ball as they continue to move inexorably in the right direction under Mourinho, who has regained that regal arrogance to his persona that was blighted by an aura of glumness – as if burdened by a million problems – last season.
Against Everton in April, United never looked as if they would score, and had to rely on a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty to save themselves from complete embarrassment.
This time around, however, you felt as if they were always on the verge of adding a second following Antonio Valencia‘s rip-roaring opener. And that is the crucial difference: an intangible but omnipresent threat of a goal being just around a corner.
An important contributing factor is, of course, the presence of Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has wasted no time getting settled ever since arriving from Everton for £75m in July, netting seven goals in as many games. United needed somebody who specialises in punishing lesser sides in front of goal over the summer and they could hardly have found a better fit.
But that only tells a fraction of the overall story. United’s renewed verve in front of goal is grounded in no particular individual and instead in a collective thrust towards punishing opponents as one ruthless, indefatigable unit. And it is no wonder that everybody is chipping in with goals: Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have been lethal from out wide, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly and Valencia have all contributed as well.
There is still a long way to go this season. We have only played five games and nothing has been decided yet. But one thing supporters can be certain about is that, finally, United have rediscovered their goalscoring mojo after far too long.