Eleven games in, and with the arrival of the final international break before March, it’s time we reflected on the season so far for Manchester United under Jose Mourinho.
It has been a very hot and cold 2016/17 for United, to put it mildly. Largely eventful, the first three months in the Premier League for the Red Devils have shed some light on the fact that the issues they are facing under their third full time manager in three years go a lot deeper than the managers themselves. Mourinho took over a squad that was nowhere near ready for a title challenge, and the rigors that involved in a tussle at the top end of the competition, and identified the weak and imbalanced core that hindered them from mounting a serious threat to the teams that eventually finished above them. He bolstered the spine in the transfer window and made a massive statement of intent bringing in center-half Eric Bailly, central midfielder Paul Pogba for a world record fee, attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Swedish 35-year old forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer.
Without any shred of doubt, it was the best window the club has had in years, maybe not in terms of market value in the short term but by the sheer volume of talent and goals and assists he brought into the club that scored a paltry 49 goals in the season before, it looked like they were going to be a force again. But after eleven games, United find themselves in the sixth position in the table, with 5 wins, 3 draws and 3 defeats and already 8 points off the summit. In Europe, they have not fared any better. They have lost both the games away from home in their group to Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, teams they were expected to beat, make no mistake about it, meaning they sit third in the group they should really be winning without much hassle.
The rudimentary setback at the moment for United is they do not look like a team settled unlike their arch rivals and league leaders Liverpool for example. One of the hardest things about Manchester United is guessing their starting line-up which should be anything but that. Injuries have had a toll and Mourinho is definitely partly to blame but the players deserve the flak they are getting too for the inconsistencies in their performances; not least by their own manager, in a few cases.
The players have had it fairly easy in the post-Ferguson era when the spotlight has always been on the manager when things went or seemed to go downhill because it has always been that way at Manchester United, even in the halcyon days of Sir Alex Ferguson. For Mourinho to literally wake this club from their three-year slumber is maybe the hardest task he has ever had in his managerial career when we weigh in the pressure and scrutiny the club is under every single time they step on to that pitch. And it has become very clear that the £150-million on top of the £300 million (approximately) and odd the club have spent since the Scot’s retirement cannot buy the one thing that is intangible: winning mentality. And for good or worse, Mourinho has identified it and seems to be driving the club in that direction, which is definitely encouraging.
There have been signs, it must be said, when Manchester United played like they should, with the resources they have and the players they can field on a good injury-free day. The 4-1 demolition of Leicester was sensational and so was the impressive 4-1 victory against Fenerbahce. Even the performances against Stoke City and Burnley at Old Trafford when they mustered about 20 shots on target and ended up scoring one goal, dropping four points, were indicative of the clear change in style of the Red Devils from a rigid and pedestrian version in the Louis van Gaal era. The 0-0 at Liverpool sent mixed messages but Mourinho proved he could get the result he wanted when his players bought into his ideas and applied themselves from minute 1 to the final whistle.
United are definitely moving forward as a football club and their progress is akin to Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp last season, only difference being the pressure that Jose Mourinho is under which is only fair, given the money spent and his own statement after taking over at the club when he almost mentioned that he wanted to discard the last 3 years and concentrate on the illustrious history before. But what also separates the two situations is United’s inability so far to win a big game. A genuine big game. So far the Red Devils have picked up only one point from games against City at home, Liverpool and Chelsea away from home as opposed to five last season and six the campaign before.
But they now have the chance to get their headline win right after the international break in the form of Arsenal at Old Trafford which is also one of the four consecutive home games they will go on to play in three different competitions in November. It’s never too late to dust themselves off and go on a run.