The Baker’s Dozen
José Mourinho’s side never recovered from October’s international break, or more specifically, autumn’s momentum was shattered as the Portuguese sent his high-flying team out to defend at Anfield on 14 October. In the interim Mourinho’s side has failed to convince in any of the six league and cup fixtures since the bore draw on Merseyside. Victory over Tottenham Hotspur was hard-won, but defeats to Huddersfield Town and Chelsea have left United well off the Premier League pace. As November’s break comes to a close, the Reds face 13 fixtures between now and the end of the year. It’s a period that won’t make United’s season, but it could certainly break it.
The poor run of results over the past month leaves the pressure on Mourinho’s side to recover quickly – and some of the pain has been self-inflicted. After all, there was plenty of timidity in Mourinho’s decision to park the bus at Anfield, where an out-of-form Liverpool team was offered far more respect than performances suggested was actually due.
"Mourinho’s side never recovered from October’s international break, or more specifically, momentum was shattered as the Portuguese sent his team out to defend at Anfield."
United scored a narrow victory over Benfica in Lisbon a few days later, but three points were garnered in no small part due to the home ‘keeper gifting Mourinho’s side victory in an otherwise mediocre performance. There also was a touch of fortune about United’s victory in the home tie against the Portuguese champions.
Defeat at Huddersfield was a disaster long in the making – a performance where midfielder Ander Herrera was right to question his team’s work ethic and passion. Meanwhile, performance levels in last weekend’s reverse at Chelsea reached a fresh nadir. Herrera anonymous in a game where he needed to excel, as were any of his colleagues. Perhaps only David de Gea and Eric Bailly emerged with pride and reputation intact from Stamford Bridge.
Of course, the Reds, secured victory over an otherwise high-flying Spurs at Old Trafford, but it was another circumspect performance far from that of potential champions. Victory is victory, yet it has been some time since Mourinho’s side impressed in both performance and result against one of the Premier League’s better teams.
This run has comes amid the manager offering loving glances the way of Paris Saint-Germain, either talking up the French club as “special… magic… fantastic” or having his people brief various members of the fourth estate of his interest. Mourinho’s entourage has offered a variety of motivating factors for the Portuguese manager’s supposed dissatisfaction in Manchester, including the apparently overly bureaucratic hierarchy at Old Trafford. Ed Woodward will take note.
It will surprise few that Mourinho has also reportedly complained about competing with City’s “state” level wealth – he has recently ratcheted-up the moaning about United’s failure to land Ivan Perisic in the summer. Nor that this period of briefing comes as negotiations over a new contract begin. In one way or another money has featured prominently in Mourinho’s managerial career.
That is the past, though. The future offers a baker’s dozen of critical fixtures before we welcome in 2018. Newcastle United visits Old Trafford this weekend in a game that Mourinho’s side simply must win. Now eight points behind Manchester City, it is almost unthinkable that United can challenge for the title if that gap is not closed by the turn of the year.
Indeed, it seems unlikely that United will be able to increase the pressure on Pep Guardiola’s outfit before the Derby on 10 December, with City facing four highly winnable fixtures in the meantime. For a side that is averaging more than three goals a game, fixtures against Leicester City, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham United, should hold little fear.
That leaves the onus on United to find the kind of form that had supporters excited during the dog days of August into September. Newcastle is followed by a trip to Basel, where Mourinho’s side will guarantee qualification with a point. In fact, the Reds’ goal difference means that it is unlikely United will miss the draw for the Round of 16, leaving Mourinho with the option to rest players next Tuesday – and against CSKA Moscow in December. Whether multiple changes from weekend to midweek will help build momentum is another question.
The Reds will expect to score victory over Brighton & Hove Albion towards the end of the month, although the midweek trip to Watford that follows comes with no guarantees of points. After all, United lost at Vicarage Road in ignominious circumstances last season, while the performance of Marco Silva’s side this year continues to add to the burgeoning reputation that the Portuguese coach now enjoys. Arsenal will look to more than a little fortune for victory at Vicarage Road last month.
December begins with a visit to the Emirates Stadium, with a home fixture against CSKA three days before the first Manchester derby of the campaign. While Arsene Wenger’s side has suffered on the road this season, the Gunners remain undefeated at the Emirates.
Both that game and then City’s visit to Old Trafford a week later will test Mourinho’s appetite for expansive football against stronger teams. It has been anorexic to date. In fact, Mourinho would probably take two points from those two fixtures now, although it would do little increase United’s chances of mounting a title challenge. Thoughts of the title may seem fanciful from the vantage point of two defeats in the past four league matches – and City’s outstanding form – but it wasn’t just a month ago.
The sense that United’s manager will hope to keep both games tight and feed off opposition mistakes pervades. Mourinho’s record in fixtures against the ‘big six’ away from home since he returned to management in England suggests that supporters should not expect too much from United’s visit to north London. Anything from the derby at this stage seems like a bonus.
December concludes with winnable games against Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City, Burnley, and Southampton, with a League Cup quarter-final against Bristol City to navigate in between. Yet, six games in 17 days will certainly test United’s strength in depth – and Mourinho’s patience should results not go entirely the Reds’ way.
Mourinho will, at least, have more options available, with defender Marcos Rojo returning to the United squad this weekend and Paul Pogba back in full training. How the Reds have missed the Frenchman’s expansive talents, with Herrera unable to replicate last season’s Player of the Year winning performances over the past month. The Spaniard has spent much of the season on the bench having effectively lost his place to Nemanja Matic – and there is a school of thought that says Herrera’s re-training as a number six has negatively affected his attacking game.
Mourinho will need more than Pogba back though. He also needs top goalscorer Romelu Lukaku to find form once again. The Belgian hasn’t scored for United since September – a run of seven games without a club goal.
The rest is up to Mourinho. A more positive outlook and expansive mindset might just be the difference between momentum gained or a season on the brink by the time the year turns. Is Mourinho in that mood? It seems not.
United’s Fixtures to Close out 2017
18 November – Premier League, Newcastle United (H)
22 November – Champions League, FC Basel (A)
25 November – Premier League, Brighton & Hove Albion (H)
28 November – Premier League, Watford (A)
02 December – Premier League, Arsenal (A)
05 December – Champions League, CSKA Moscow (H)
10 December – Premier League, Manchester City (H)
13 December – Premier League, Bournemouth (H)
17 December – Premier League, West Brom Albion (A)
20 December – Carabao Cup, Bristol City (A)
23 December – Premier League, Leicester City (A)
26 December – Premier League, Burnley (H)
30 December – Premier League, Southampton (H)