Jose Mourinho knows that things are improving at Manchester United, but he’s not getting carried away. Whatever he says or has said in public since taking over at Old Trafford in July, the Portuguese manager thinks there are better-equipped teams to win the Premier League title this season.
He feels that he’s up against clubs that have been building for years, including his old Chelsea team, which he left a year ago as champions of England, even if they weren’t playing like that at the time.
At Old Trafford, Mourinho feels that he’s had to start virtually from scratch. Not in terms of personnel –he inherited some very talented players — but where philosophy is concerned, after the majority of his squad spent two years working under Louis van Gaal. Given how much their approaches to the game vary, it’s a surprise the two men worked together so cohesively at Barcelona in the 1990s.
Mourinho believes that the current wealth of the Premier League has made it harder for any team to dominate, yet expectations at United were formed during two decades of near-constant success, when finishing third and only reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League were deemed a failure.
The club has a glorious history of trophies and some of the game’s finest teams, as well as massive global support, all of which bring pressures that jar with the current reality of talent and techniques at the club.
West Bromwich Albion
That being said, though, United will make it 10 games unbeaten in all competitions if they avoid defeat at an improved West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. With former United players Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher playing key roles, the Baggies sit seventh, just one place below Mourinho’s side, who themselves are 13 points behind leaders Chelsea.
United’s points total of 27 from 16 games is much lower than was expected, but the mood is bright among match-going fans, and for reasons other than pre-festive cheer. There is genuine conviction that Mourinho is the right man to return the club back to trophy -winning ways and fans believe that he understands the United ethos of attacking football.
While the current side still has a long way to go to be compared with its greatest predecessors, the difference was stark between Wednesday’s visit to Crystal Palace — a train strike and heavy traffic in London meant it took many United fans seven hours to reach Selhurst Park — and the previous one in October 2015.
That day, a 0-0 draw saw Van Gaal’s stock continue to slip as fans failed to buy into his stifling, stupefying football. Results have actually been worse under Mourinho — at this stage of last season, United had two more points than they do now — but he’s adamant that, while draws are the preserve of defence-minded sides, his team is anything but that.
However, a goals tally of just 22 shows that, while they dominate periods of matches and create many chances, not enough are being converted. Beyond Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has nine in the league, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford have three apiece, but nobody else has scored more than once.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney has spent a long time closing down the last few goals needed — with 248, he still trails by one — to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton and become the club’s record scorer. Among the current squad, next on that list is Mata, who has netted 31 times in almost three years at Old Trafford and is 82nd on the all-time list.
It’s a further sign that United in 2016 remain a work in progress, with new faces aplenty and comparisons with the past that are considered pointless by the new manager. For two decades under Sir Alex Ferguson, United had three, four or five of their all-time top scorers in the same team, players afforded opportunity and longevity that would result in legendary status. But those days have gone.
United were not in vintage form at suburban Selhurst Park, a creaking ground of four uneasily juxtaposed stands and which has iron girders blocking views from stands designed for terracing rather than seats, but a win is a win.
Mourinho has cursed the decisions that have gone against both him and his team. He’s convinced of a conspiracy, but luck evens itself out. Defender Marcos Rojo, for example, has used up plenty in recent games, picking up yellow cards at Everton and Palace when red ones looked more likely. Overall, though, the Argentine has earned his place and impressed his manager.
While there approach to the game might different in many ways, one thing Van Gaal and Mourinho did agree about concerns the English game’s intense schedule over the festive season. While the prospect of so many games is exciting and part of a tradition that should be protected, both men believe they don’t help the prospects of English teams in the New Year, especially in European competition.
While other major European leagues take a break, England’s top flight is an anomaly. South American players love the idea of returning home for a week in mid-season, enabling them to dip into their native summer and come back more refreshed for the season’s run-in. They don’t get such luxury if they play for an English team and it can have a negative impact: Angel Di Maria’s performances in the second half of his only season at United, for example, were poor compared to those in his first.
That is one reason Van Gaal wasn’t keen on South American players but, while Mourinho would like a winter break, he knows how it is in England and he chose to stay in the country where the football gives him most satisfaction.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.