Manchester United’s run of nine straight victories came to a somewhat unsatisfying end last week, as Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point. The Reds’ unbeaten record was rescued only by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header, as José Mourinho was left to reflect on points dropped. The joy sparked by the Swede’s improvisational finish quickly dissipated after the final whistle in the knowledge that Jurgen Klopp’s side would head back down the M62 harbouring considerable satisfaction. This week, United travels to Stoke, looking to recover from last week’s derby disappointment.
Following Manchester United’s less-than-impressive start to the season José Mourinho’s side is now on a bit of a roll. Eight wins in succession in all competitions, including a 4-0 drubbing of Championship outfit Reading in the FA Cup, means confidence is at the highest point it’s been since last summer. It’s a run the Reds can continue when Hull City arrives at Old Trafford for a League Cup semi-final this Tuesday.
Rewind to January 2016 and the mood at Manchester United could hardly be more different. Although Louis Van Gaal did not depart until the end of the season, it was in the disastrous conclusion to 2015 that his fate was effectively sealed. The Reds did not win a game in December during a dismal run that included three straight defeats. Title ambitions were shattered and at one stage it appeared as though Van Gaal would not make it to the New Year.
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’s the season of goodwill, but there may be little of it at Old Trafford for former Manchester United boss David Moyes when his Sunderland team arrives on Boxing Day. There has been a feeling of indifference towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s hapless successor in the period since he was sacked in 2014. Moyes was hopelessly out of his depth at United, and although his dismissal was handled poorly, it was absolutely the right thing to do. The Scot contributed heavily to the club’s post-Fergie malaise, and should never have been given the job in the first place. Much of the blame has been levelled at the powers who appointed him. As such, there wasn’t a substantial amount of disdain towards the Scot. Until now.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last gasp winner at Crystal Palace was that it almost had that old air of inevitability about it. There was no cast-iron guarantee that the Reds would find a way past Palace’s enforced rear-guard, but it felt much more likely than the days of watching Louis Van Gaal’s United pacing around outside the door without so much as knocking it. Now, a tough test at West Bromwich Albion is the perfect opportunity to take another step in the right direction.
It is perhaps too early to tempt fate and claim that Manchester United has turned a significant corner, but Sunday’s ship-steadying victory over Tottenham Hotspur was certainly a step in the right direction. It was José Mourinho’s first league victory at Old Trafford since September, a statistic that could be considered a sacking offence in the knee-jerk world of modern football. Yet, as is so often the case, there has been much more to United’s season than the raw data. And the Reds could take another step forward at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
At what point does, seemingly, appalling luck become par for the course? Since Manchester United last picked up maximum points in a Premier League game, a very familiar pattern has played out: dominant in possession, much of the play, very few chances taken. Three matches, three 1-1 draws. It has left the Reds 13 points off the Premier League leaders.
It’s official – Manchester United has made the leap from chronically depressing to mind-bogglingly frustrating. In what feels like a cruel joke, José Mourinho’s side is now, in many ways, the antithesis of Louis van Gaal’s uninspiring outfit, but for the rather large caveat of being unable to find the net. That will have to change with the Reds at Everton this weekend.