At this moment in time, it is pretty well established that Manchester United have shown progress. When Mourinho took over the reins – precisely the day after United won the FA Cup for a then record equalling 12th time, that had been the immediate objective. However, the long-term aim for a manager of Mourinho’s calibre has to show consistent improvement on and off the pitch; to ‘Make United Great Again’.
Well, if Manchester United are not objectively ‘great’ yet – their results this season at least suggest that they are somewhere on the right track that could lead them to greatness. The Red Devils have made one of the best starts to their league campaign in recent years, securing 23 points out of an available 33 on offer – scoring the second highest number of goals and conceding the least in the division.
Looking back at 2012/13, the last time they won the competition, United had accrued 27 points at the same stage after 11 games with a 2 point lead over neighbours Man City. Numerical evidence after all, paints a fairly positive picture, considerably more than what the general reaction has represented, which makes the season so far incredibly weird from an assessment standpoint.
The response of the fans, as this writer has observed, has been less positive – in fact there is even a tinge of suspicion and cautiousness about United’s improvement on last season and this cumulative progression in the last three campaigns. And they may not be entirely baseless.
United may be second in the league but they are still searching for a big away win at one of the top six places – the sort of which Liverpool were able to get last season – a side lesser equipped in terms of strength and depth, the like of which Man City seem to get this season, the impeccable league leaders were able to produce where it mattered, at the home of the defending Champions. Man City did not just win at Stamford Bridge, they dominated a strong Chelsea side in their own patch. Nothing lays a marker down quite like that.
If an undesirable combination of that and United’s own lifeless performance for a third time in a row at Stamford Bridge almost a fortnight ago, has rubbed the fans in the wrong way, Jose Mourinho has only aggravated any such irritation what with his constant search for conspiracies and chaos for him to thrive on – a mere vehicle to deflect attention from the alarming fact that he is now inching towards a third year without a win away from home against the Premier League’s strongest six.
It is all well and good to draw extra motivation from outside other than the weekly pay cheque and an inherent baseline expectation at a club the size of United, enough to keep players and staff awake at night. But it remains to be seen, with these young players – several across that forward line yet to play a vital role in a proper title race let alone win one – whether an abrasive route that Mourinho has continued to take, could not burn them out before long.
The biggest talking point in 2017/18 so far, is Jose Mourinho as is always the case with him. The Portuguese has most certainly benefited from the defensive structure that Van Gaal had left in the side although the personnel have changed at United under the new stewardship. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones are as good a center-half partnership as any in the league – and only one can be relied upon to play through a whole season.
Having a world-class goalkeeper does bring its merits, but Manchester United have been one of the two best defensive sides in the league for about three years now – so it cannot be all down to an individual. Victor Lindelof, the new recruitment this season to bolster the back – has been hot and cold but there is potential there to tap.
Matic has been the scaffold in the middle – playing a key role in the Red Devils controlling football matches, bringing it down to ‘their pace’ but therein lies the problem. Mkhitaryan has gone off the boil and without Paul Pogba, the central midfielder who could run with a football as good as many, out for the period of time that he has – United have reverted to type under Mourinho. They lack pace through the middle (again) and without center-halves who are ill-suited to build up play from the back, United have failed to provide Lukaku with the ammunition they managed to do in August.
Up front, United have been strangely incoherent for the majority but not altogether inconsistent and unproductive. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have been the standout performers – all scoring / assisting a combined 10 or more goals already in the season. But how many times has this incredibly exciting attacking triumvirate started together in the Premier League this season? Zero.
When United were good, they were very good but the best sides are judged on the biggest games and thus far, there is little to shout about for United fans in that regard.
Yet, the spooky thing about this Manchester United side is that they are, at the end of the day, second in the league in November and if they could sustain that position come January or better, close the gap – we never know what could come of a side that now has developed the ability to convert draws in to wins. That should do, for now.