Manchester United failed to record victory against one of the Premier League’s top fives sides on Sunday – it was the fifth time in six matches in this particular group that the Reds have come away with fewer than three points. Defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, together with draws against Arsenal and Liverpool, leaves José Mourinho’s team with the worst head-to-head record between the top six. Progress at Old Trafford is genuine, but save for victory over Spurs, it is largely based on beating those below United in the table. With Champions League qualification far from guaranteed, this pattern is Mourinho’s most critical challenge over the next five months.
How quickly the narrative can change. In November, with Manchester United slipping well off the pace in the Premier League and looking game for an early exit from the Europa League, the pressure began to build on new coach José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager had come off a disastrous season at Chelsea, which ended in his dismissal by Roman Abramovich for the second time. Had the maestro’s mojo truly gone? Certainly, there was plenty of evidence in United’s inconsistent performances and disappointing results to suggest as much. Just a few weeks and eight victories later, nobody will draw that conclusion. Mourinho and United are back.
It’s 2017. New year, same old story: United just keep on winning. In the past week José Mourinho’s side beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford with a comeback of Fergusonian proportions, and gained a somewhat fortunate victory at the Olympic Stadium over West Ham United. That’s seven on the trot for one of the country’s most in-form teams.
It felt right, didn’t it? The Stretford End “sucked the ball in,” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it after Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. The intensity with which José Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear. The rush of adrenaline as Anthony Martial equalised; the euphoria of that late Paul Pogba winner. Three points. Momentum firmly with the Reds.
José Mourinho has gained a reputation for alienating many in the game. The big personality, robust ego and single-minded drive to win is ill-suited to making friends. Yet, the Portuguese manager comes face-to-face this weekend with one of his few friends in the game, former assistant and Middlesbrough coach Aitor Karanka. It’ll be a meeting of minds as well as colleagues. Yet, with Manchester United desperate to add a fifth straight league win as momentum builds, there’ll be little time for friendship at Old Trafford on Saturday.
It was the moment so many Manchester United supporters craved. Late April 2014, after 10 months in charge, David Moyes finally gone to dancing, if not on the streets of Salford, then a surfeit of social media. Moyes’ dismissal ended an anarchic period at Old Trafford; the brutal deconstruction of an experienced manager. History will long remember Moyes for his ineptitude in a job that was always too much, and the club for a shocking lack of a post-Ferguson succession planning. With the Scot’s Sunderland at Old Trafford this Christmas, memories flood back of time many want to forget…
Victory in the Premier League at last. Recent draws against Burnley, Stoke City, Arsenal, West Ham United and Everton had threatened to derail Manchester United’s domestic season, putting qualification for the Champions League at risk and ending all hope of a challenge for the title. Yet, Sunday’s narrow win over Tottenham Hotspur offers some light. Not only that United can salvage the campaign, but make up a six point gap to fourth-placed Manchester City. It is a scenario that will require the Reds to go on a lengthy winning run this winter.
What to make of Manchester United? Handsome victory over Feyenoord in the Europa League followed by yet another deeply frustrating home draw with West Ham in the Premier League. The domestic result leaves United 11 points behind the league leaders, with qualification for next season’s Champions League all but a rapidly fading dream.
Perhaps the most shocking data point from Manchester United’s last three Premier League home games is the more than 70 shots taken for just two goals scored. United 1-1 Stoke City, United 0-0 Burnley and United 1-1 Arsenal all carried a good deal of frustration. The six points lost in draws where United should have won might just be critical by May and could have taken José Mourinho’s side to just three points behind leaders Chelsea. It wasn’t so and for the most part the blames lies with the Reds’ inability to turn chances into goals. Not so on Thursday, with United vibrant in attack and efficient in scoring four against Feyenoord. The question is whether United can sustain the level of performance when the serious business of domestic football resumes this weekend?
Four points – the difference between Manchester United’s elimination from this season’s Europa League and the humiliation of having to play in Europe’s second tier competition past the New Year. José Mourinho’s side could collect three of the four points required to qualify from Group A on Thursday night with Feyenoord visiting Old Trafford. The real question, of course, is whether any of the players are really up for it?