Manchester United currently find themselves chasing the breakaway pack. Many of those who inhabit the Stretford End on a regular basis would say that two-and-a-half years of progress should be much more than it has been. However, as all fans of the red side of Manchester know, the intermittent 33 months have been far from a steady progression.
Dutch enigma Louis van Gaal held the famed office for the past two seasons, but a disillusionment with tactics and transfers led to his dismissal at the end of the previous campaign. It was at this point that Mourinho, held up as the definition of a winner, was appointed and given a sizeable transfer and wage budget with the aim of getting United back to where they have been for the majority of the last two decades – perched atop the Premier League table.
This season had more anticipation for United fans than any since Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, with a reinvigorated first team and, on paper, their strongest squad in years. Statement signings right through the spine of the team had been cited as necessary for years and this was the summer that delivered them: Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Mkhitaryan, were all seen as signings who would immediately impact the team in a drive for some badly needed success in the short-term.
However, with over half of the season’s league games played, almost all have accepted that United’s title hopes are over, while securing UEFA Champions League football is already proving a big challenge.
That said, Mourinho’s side are finding form. Ibrahimovic is coming into his own, with five goals in five games for December, finally showing the match-winning form that inspired United’s board to basically write an open cheque to the then 34-year-old.
The defence no longer looks likely to start costing the team points, to the extent that the ‘Special One’ has decided not to bid for Benfica defender Victor Lindelof in this month. The loss of Bailly to the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast for up to three weeks will also be felt less due to the improvement at the back, although one doubts anybody would have foreseen defensive solidity coming from the pairing of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, the latter some maintain should still be banned for a certain tackle put in against Everton at the start of December.
Undeniably, United got lucky with that one, as they did 13 days later against West Bromwich Albion, when Ibrahimovic could well have been sent off for a challenge on Chris Brunt.
If there’s one thing United need right now, it’s their supremely skilled Swedish striker, whose double figures in the league is the best in the squad. On the goal-scoring front United’s midfield is lacking, but the trio of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and the aforementioned Pogba have been essential to the Red Devils finding their feet.
Mkhitaryan’s rapid rise from serial unused substitute to regular starter has also improved the side on the pitch while increasing the level of competition among attackers. Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were all in the 18-man squad against Sunderland, and that’s not even mentioning Memphis Depay and club captain Wayne Rooney. This strength in depth is sure to come in handy if United progress from their UEFA Europa League last-32 tie against St. Etienne in February, added to by the EFL Cup semi-final legs and potential FA Cup progression.
The recent resurgence of Mourinho’s Manchester United has to be respected. Unbeaten in the league since their harrowing loss at Stamford Bridge against Antonio Conte’s charges in October, a continuation of this form should see Old Trafford turn back into the intimidating fortress it once was and turn United themselves into a similar side to the one that ruled the roost under Sir Alex. That factor has become lost over the intervening few years since he left, but is gradually being built back up.
At this stage closing the gap on Chelsea looks like an impossible task, but given they’re just a handful of points behind Arsenal in fourth, United should be there or thereabouts when it comes to the Champions League places this season, if they continue this current form.
Lest we forget that when Mourinho rejoined Chelsea in 2013, he took two seasons to deliver a league title, don’t be surprised if he keeps that record up in Manchester. This year is almost definitely too soon for first place, but Stretford End residents may finally be seeing the steady progress that they’ve craved for years.
-By Mark Lynch