As we come to the halfway point of the season, the English Premier League takes a brief sojourn to accommodate two of our older footballing institutions – the F.A. and EFL Cup competitions. A brutal 4-0 dispatching of Reading on Saturday brought about United’s eighth successive win (including six in the EPL), our best run since 2009.
If all goes accordingly, Tuesday’s EFL cup match against Hull should be number nine. It’s easy to lose ourselves in the definitive nature of facts, especially when what they actually represent may not be significant or representative of the real picture. That being said; this is our best run in eight years, and I don’t think there’s a fan out there who can deny that we’re seeing is the return of confidence, positive play and swagger.
It may be tempting fate to ponder what might be heading our way in 2017/18. Yes, this season may have come too soon for tangible success, but the blueprints are being laid every week. The nature of the recent wins over Middlesbrough and West Ham are testaments to the new (old?) spirit this side has dragged from within itself.
Quite simply, this squad would have dropped points in both of those games last season. To their credit, previously inconsistent performers have stepped up massively so far this season, and it is hard to look beyond Van Gaal’s departure as the instigation. Suddenly, a squad so devoid of leadership and motivation last season finds itself being consistently marshalled and harried by the likes of Herrera, Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Carrick and a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney.
Without a doubt we are reaping the benefits of a more relaxed dressing-room culture promoted by the manager, providing a total U-turn from the last two seasons. The squad’s big personalities have reinstated their positions and seem bursting with passion for our team again. That, for me, is the most noticeable change. Our players look up for every challenge, and throughout our draw-spell in October/November it was a question of when, not if the performances would yield reward.
The desire to win was there, but individual errors and plain bad luck denied us the point tally we arguably deserve. It’s easy to overlook and underrate our season so far, but if we’d have held out in the aforementioned draws (an arguable ten point swing), 49 points puts us level with Chelsea.
As an initial (only slight) sceptic of Mourinho taking the reins at our club, I’m delighted to say that my doubts were, as of yet, entirely misplaced. He’s delivering dynamic football (more clinical in both boxes than free-flowing in the middle); his signings have so far all been qualified successes by addressing problem areas in the squad. My only discrepancy would be how seemingly unwilling he is to implement talented youngsters such as Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe.
It’s arguable that both of these players would do better jobs than some of the senior ‘deadwood’ we have floating around the squad. Ashley Young makes consistently decent showings at right-back and his devotion to the cause should be commended, but surely against Reading Fosu-Mensah could have been trusted for the 90 minutes? As I said earlier though, this remains a minor criticism – Mourinho might simply be ensuring results in this most crucial of seasons; the long game can wait until solid foundations have been laid.
As per the manager earlier in the season: “I knew when I took over that periods of domination belong to the past.” His forecast is undoubtedly right. The wealth of talent and finances available to the top clubs ensures that the EPL will become an even more staggeringly competitive league – already the most in world football.
Opening up a healthy first-leg lead against Hull this Tuesday could all but ensure an EFL cup final, which although won’t be high on most United fan’s list of priorities, it represents the rising tide of momentum we’ve developed. A win on Sunday against Liverpool at the Theatre of Dreams would put earlier dismissals of a title challenge well and firmly to bed. The match-up is delicately poised; United are gelling at just the right time, but Liverpool’s impressive forward line might just represent the toughest test of the season for Phil Jones and co. A win against the Scousers would be a surging display of intent from United, firmly planting a yardstick for our progress.
Win, and who knows what this season could actually hold – top four minimum would be made to seem unambitious. The alternative? I’m not even considering it – we have exactly what it takes and more to deal with Liverpool. Hopefully come Sunday, the hugs will all come courtesy of one J. Mourinho.
By Zak Wilkinson.