The streak is finally over (for now).
After over 100 days (164 to be exact), Manchester United are out of 6th place.
A 3-1 victory away at Middlesbrough moved them up to 5th place, two points ahead of Arsenal – who slipped to 6th, and four points (with two games in hand) behind Liverpool in 4th.
The unbeaten run would always eventually move United up the table, even more so given the number of dropped points from the other Top 4 contenders.
United (coming of a Europa League win vs FC Rostov) lined up in what looked to be a 3-4-2-1 formation, but actually proved to be 4-2-3-1.
With injuries/suspensions hitting, the back four comprised of Eric Bailly at right back, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Ashley Young.
Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini started in centre midfield, behind a front three of Antonio Valencia (restored to his right wing position), Juan Mata, and Jesse Lingard. Marcus Rashford continued up front.
Middlesbrough had sacked manager Aitor Karanka after a dismal run of form that puts them in 19th place, and were hoping for a new manager bounce.
The atmosphere at the Riverside stadium was also good as the fans looked to try and galvanise the players.
It looked to have an immediate effect, as the home side definitely started on top.
Gaston Ramirez particularly looked to be the most effective player, taking advantage of Eric Bailly playing out of position at right back.
For all the home team’s possession, they really did not create any clear-cut chances.
United the more dangerous
In fact, the United team (set up to counter with the pace of Lingard, Rashford, and Valencia) were the ones who had the best chances.
Marcus Rashford absolutely blitzed past Bernardo with his pace, but his shot was saved well down to his left by former United player Victor Valdes.
Rashford of last season would have buried the chance – as with the next one.
Good play down the left from Juan Mata bought himself some space to whip the ball into the box, and when Rashford met it he thought it was a guaranteed goal.
Valdes had other ideas, being exactly in the right place to block the shot.
He also blocked the rebound from Valencia from a tight angle to remind his old club of what they had let go.
Despite the profligacy, United took a deserved lead after 30 minutes.
Ashley Young made a typical Ashley Young move by dropping the shoulder and cutting onto his right foot to cross, and his ball found Marouane Fellaini in the box.
Fellaini jumped over Fabio to nod the ball into the back of the net.
From then on, Middlesbrough appeared galvanised and had a couple of attempts on goal (through wingers Stewart Downing and Gaston Ramirez).
Former City player Alvaro Negredo was shackled well by Chris Smalling until halftime.
After the half, Mourinho’s team definitely set up on the counter with Lingard and Rashford running directly at the Boro defenders.
It was from this that the second goal came about.
Jesse Lingard picked up the ball on the halfway line following a clearance, and with only the Middlesbrough defenders ahead of him, decided to dribble and run.
The back four continued to drop off, and Marcus Rashford made a diagonal run that took one defender with him.
This created space for Lingard to have a shot, and he arrowed the ball into the corner with his laces.
It was his first league goal of the season, and he celebrated by playing the flute – a tribute to the Drake song Portland that had released the previous night.
First Premier League goal for Boro in a while
Middlesbrough’s response was to throw on Rudy Gestede and Adama Traore, and go more direct.
Gestede and Negredo as a front two is physically imposing, and with Traore and Downing on the wings the gameplan was clear.
It did help them back into the game (especially as United dropped off and tried to defend the 2-0 lead).
With 15 minutes left, a long ball into the box was half-cleared, and when it made its way back Chris Smalling was unable to clear.
This left Gestede on his own vs De Gea from 5 yards out, and there was no mistake.
Middlesbrough scored their first Premier League goal in over 500 minutes, and the game was back on.
Mourinho then brought on his other defender (Phil Jones), and reverted to a 5 at the back formation with four CBs in order to deal with the physical pressure.
It was nervy, and there were half chances for Middlesbrough.
Without the lack of a target man up front however, the ball kept being gifted to the home team.
The mercy bullet
In injury time (with the score 2-1), Middlesbrough had a free kick that was lumped into the box to try and create havoc – however the resulting ball was cleared and Antonio Valencia dribbled the ball away into the opposition half.
He lost the ball but continued to chase it down as it made its way back to Valdes.
The keeper slipped as he was about to kick it long, and Valencia had the easiest of tap ins.
He duly delivered, and in the process delivered the three points that took United to fifth after what seemed an eternity.
Talking Points – Jesse Lingard
Jesse Lingard was a deserved Man of the Match vs Middlesbrough.
He was tasked with leading the counter-attack with his pace and work rate, and duly delivered – even getting his first PL goal of the season with a long shot from outside the box.
The flute player celebration was also well planned (a tribute to Drake releasing his new playlist More Life that featured a song with a flute intro).
Lingard gets a lot of stick from fans, and a lot of it is to do with his star power.
He isn’t in the United first-team XI when everyone is available, but he is the definition of a more than useful squad player.
His game is built upon energy and work rate, and is a reason why Mourinho uses him so often.
The England player also shows his quality on the ball against Middlesbrough – using his pace to advantage.
A typical United squad player
He is the typical United squad player that made the Ferguson squads what they were (think back to Ji Sung Park, John O’Shea, and even Phil Jones to an extent).
Nobody expects Lingard to top the goals/assists charts, but there is an expectation that as an attacking player he will benefit the squad.
Deserves more credit
Lingard also is that youth player who has been at the club since he was 11, and is United through and through.
So much so that he’s helped United win two trophies at Wembley (scoring goals in both finals) – he deserves a lot more than the stick he receives.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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