The ratio of chances created to goals scored remains desperately loop-sided. United have created more chances than merit the tally of three goals in their last two league games. However, seeing themselves over the line against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace was a pleasant yet very necessary departure from the norm that has been to fail to close out games.
In the context of the league season, the last two games were a question of what is left of United’s relevance at the summit of the league table. Fail to win both and United could have easily been on the wrong side of the divide that is developing between the top six and the rest of the league.
As it turned out, United have just about ensured they remain on the edge of the debate for the elite positions going into the Christmas schedule. At 7 points from third place, there is still light in United’s season of the club can transform their dominance on the pitch to goals and eventually three points.
Indeed Jose Mourinho is blessed with such a relatively favourable fixture list over the festive season that it is tempting to tick off games right into January. If only it were that simple! The premier league has evolved into such an untamed animal that you will have to break sweat for each of the 90 minutes before you can be certain of a three points haul. This is why the frustration of United’s dropped points amid their dominance has been tough to take.
The slight upturn in fortunes has coincided withe the manager’s twitch of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 that has allowed Paul Pogba reap the full benefit of having Micheal Carrick and Ander Herrera behind him. The initial sacrifice was Juan Mata who had to give way to the now indispensable Henrickh Mkhitaryan. Injury to the Armenian saw a recall of the Spaniard but it is slowly becoming evident that the manager has finally settled on an ethos for his team.
For a long while, it had been a conundrum how Manchester United boasted some of the best collection of midfielders on the continent and yet seemed to struggle to dictate games in the manner that sides with similarly endowed do. A team that can assemble a midfield to render unnecessary the talents of Bastian Schweinsteiger shouldn’t be sharing company with Watford and West Brom on the log.
To be fair, the midfielders can point to a plethora of chances created this season as rejoinder. The balance however has not been quite right until the manager, by default or otherwise, found a way to use the talents of Carrick, Herrera, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and or Juan Mata in the same team. It is a solution hat should not be quickly departed from without taking into account how long into the season it has taken the manager to land on something that resembles a coherent approach in the middle of the park.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to the manager these past few weeks is that he has not really changed his approach despite the sticky run of results. Given the mental fragility still apparent among some of the players, it was instructive that nobody dropped their shoulders at Selhurst Park yesterday when it looked like it was going to go wrong again.
Often times in the recent run of stalemates, United have failed to rise above what they deem as unfortunate treatment by the referees. When the club was denied a clear penalty at 1-1 and had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, the excuses for another stalemate were available to cash in. In a pleasant departure from old ways, the club kept at their creative verve and dug out another opportunity from which they profited an extra two points they duly deserved. It is cliche but building on that resolve will do wonders for the mental state that some of the players need to acquire to arrive at the next level.
The handicap United have is that the recent run of poor results means that the club cannot afford to take a false step. The urgency will be well and truly back on on Saturday at the Hawthorns. Like the league leaders did last weekend, United will have to step up another level to overcome the adversity that Tony Pulis and his side will cause the club. Indeed, last night was, in many ways a perfect dress rehearsal for what is to come. The only question is if United can keep at it to provide fans with much needed festive cheer. It’s been 109 days since we had back to back premier league wins. It cannot be that sporadic if the club aims to achieve more. Consistency (albeit not the kind that sees games end in draws) ought to be the name of the game going forward.