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.
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.
It’s nine victories in a row for Manchester United, the longest winning run since the 2008/09 title-winning campaign. Six of those wins have come in the league, yet the Reds remain stuck in sixth place – Mourinho’s men are running to stand still. It is a frustrating anomaly, but there is much more to the team’s turnaround than league standing. After what seems like an eternity, it feels like watching United again. What more could be asked heading into Liverpool’s visit on Sunday?
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.
Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Despite the best intentions the relationship just doesn’t work, the pieces just don’t fit, there’s a square peg in a round hole. It’s an apt description for Morgan Schneiderlin’s time at Manchester United, which is coming to a low-key end as he metaphorically slips out the back door – a transfer away from Old Trafford is likely this winter.
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.
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.