It has been a positive start for Manchester United in 2017, pretty much picking up from where they left off in an impressive December, after winning their 6th Premier League game in a row at the London Stadium – coming through the festive period with maximum points and a bundle of confidence and could now turn the focus on to the cup competitions at least for the next ten days before they lock horns with arch rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford on the 15th of January.
As United are enjoying their best unbeaten run since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, here are some of the things that have been going right for the Red Devils under Jose Mourinho.
United have become a good defensive unit
One of the most impressive things about the unbeaten run that Manchester United are on, is the way they have carried themselves at the back. After the disaster at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho had to contend with the injuries of both their first choice center backs at the time, throw another casualty in the form of Luke Shaw into the mix, the work that the manager has done to improve United at the back is commendable.
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo as a partnership was something that seemed farcical on so many levels prior to the Portuguese making them look like proper old fashioned center halves who have clearly benefited from Mourino’s no non-sense approach to the game. And so have the Red Devils themselves. They have only conceded 8 goals in the last 13 games in all competitions with probably their third and fourth center-backs by all accounts which is testament to the success of their defending as a unit.
The Pogba-Ibrahimovic Juggernaut
Individually, both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would improve most teams in Europe. But when Manchester United signed the two players in completely different stages of their careers, questions were raised as to whether they could gel together in a way that allows the team to play better than they did in the previous season.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has silenced his critics which according to him is ‘nothing new’ taking to the Premier League like duck to water. The Swede has already scored or assisted 16 goals, taking his overall tally in England to 21 which is remarkable for a 35-year old in the twilight of his career.
But it’s been a gradual improvement in the case of 23-year old Paul Pogba who returned to his former club on the back of a physically and mentally exhausting European tournament and without a pre-season with United – his form and fitness was up and down until recent weeks when he has started to not just dominate games in the middle but also make a decisive contribution.
Three of Pogba’s four goals in the Premier League in 2016/17 were assisted by the Swedish center-forward and their telepathic relationship on the pitch may prove to be integral to where they will finish at the end of the season.
The Midfield Balance
There is a widespread belief that this is the strongest and most balanced Manchester United have looked in the middle of the park in perhaps, the last ten years. With Paul Pogba playing in the most advanced role of the three, Ander Herrera the shuttler or a mobile number ‘6’ and Michael Carrick sat in front of back four – dictating the football around him, that theory may not be far off from the truth.
The Portuguese has improved many players since he has taken charge of United but none more than fan favourite Ander Herrera. The Spaniard received his first national team call up in 2016, after a string of consistently excellent displays for the Red Devils. He has made the most interceptions in the league so far (55) which shows how important he has been in helping his side keep possession higher up the pitch more often than not. He has quickly become one of the first names on the team-sheet and a genuine captain material at Manchester United.
The Wayne Rooney Conundrum
This is probably one of the few positives that has gone under the radar, which ironically, is why it is a positive. In the last three seasons post Sir Alex, there has been a constant question mark hanging above the club as to whether or not Rooney should be a pivotal part of the starting line-up anymore despite the fact that he signed a massive contract under Ferguson’s replacement David Moyes. The Scot made him the captain in a side that ultimately finished seventh.
In came Louis van Gaal and handed his captain a few special privileges where Rooney was almost reserved a position in the starting eleven irrespective of form which seemed to be a part of his philosophy, something that was never fully understood even in the best of times.
But Mourinho has handled the Wayne Rooney mystery in the best way possible which is again one of the upsides of having a manager with a clear idea in place and a track record to back it up. He said he dismissed the idea of Wayne Rooney playing in midfield and the 31-year old has featured in the number ten role whenever he was involved, where he can influence the outcome to the best of his abilities. He has eight assists and scored thrice in all competitions, but has not had a Premier League goal to his name since the opening day header against Bournemouth.
With only 14 starts in 21 appearances for Manchester United this campaign, it’s becoming clearer that Rooney may not be one of the first names of a Manchester United side under Mourinho going forward particularly with the stiff competition that the England captain will face from Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the play-maker role even when he is fit. Whether or not Wayne Rooney can force himself back into Mourinho’s plans is for another day but the fact that his absence has shifted the focus on the actual football rather than the future concerning an individual has definitely done a world of good for United in the last two months.
Clear Adherence to the Traditions of Manchester United
This may be the most glaring positive of all. Manchester United have become exciting to watch again. They are playing attacking football, creating loads of chances, ample attempts on goal, penetration and creativity, everything one would expect of a Manchester United side.
Prior to his appointment, there was some understandable skepticism around the ultra pragmatic result-first approach of Mourinho, but it has been a pleasant surprise to many as to how entertaining United are when compared to the last two seasons. They attempt an average of 17.1 shots and 6 on target (third highest in the league behind Spurs and Liverpool) per game under Mourinho. To put this in context, it is important to note that United averaged a measly 11.3 shots on goal (15th highest) and 3.8 on target (12th highest) per game in 2015/16, the improvement has been absolutely staggering.
Mourinho has repeatedly stressed on the importance of playing the way he thinks Manchester United are obliged to do, bodes perfectly well with the supporters and finally Old Trafford is becoming the Theatre of Dreams again.