At various points during Manchester United’s 7 game winning run, it was tempting to make a conclusive observation about how far Jose Mourinho has taken the club so far. The urge of making one such observation has been tempered by the club’s unconvincing start to the season. The desperate run of draws that saw the club fail to match excellent performances with results is largely why they remain 6th despite their best premier league form in three years. Perhaps a better judgement call can be made now that the premier league pauses at the halfway point to allow for the FA Cup.
United’s six premier league wins on the bounce have come against Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and most recently West Ham United. Of the lot, the win over Spurs is the only eye-brow raiser and even that was at home, but they all count for three points!
The competition among the top six clubs is so intense at the moment that going into FA Cup weekend, five points separate Liverpool in second from United in sixth! A huge contrast to the 9 points between United in 6th and Everton in 7th. It means that even the occupants of second place could, in a matter of days of football fond themselves outside the Champions League places. There is now a mini-league at the top and thankfully, United sorted out their season in time to get the last available ticket for the party at the summit.
Forget the fairy-tale of last season, the big boys have returned to the fore of English football and more often than not, the smaller side has been on the end of a beating from a bigger side. That effectively explains the gap between 6th and 7th. What that also means is that league positions this season will more than ever be determined by results from games involving the top six!
Of the lot, United have only beaten Spurs and that is why they find themselves trailing in the mini-league. Whilst the consistent run of wins against lesser sides has helped United close the gap, it is their results against the very elite teams that will define which turn the season takes from hereon. Indeed, one good result can instill the last facet of confidence to propel this team up the summit of the league.
It is apt therefore that the clash against second placed Liverpool should come after the confidence instilling run of wins United are currently on. The reward for victory in that game is measured by the fact that in the following weeks of January, the rest of the top six play each other. In any event, we are destined for a photo finish come May.
As far as Manchester United are concerned, the club has at least shown progress. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, United have restored about themselves the aura of winning games in the tunnel. There is a core of consistent players in the side across the spine that finally mark out the club as a genuine threat to any opponent. Indeed, it is a measure of the club’s progress that they can match just about any threat in the league. It’s been a while since we could confidently say that.
Crucially, all that has been heavily dependent on the success of Jose Mourinho’s transfer business last summer. In the last three seasons, the club has struggled, nay, failed to justify its summer outlay. Too often we had to remind ourselves that a quarter of a billion pounds had been invested. In Eric Bailly, Henrickh Mikhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United bought themselves a spine that has allowed them to dominate just about every game this season, even when the results have not gone their way.
If the momentum garnered in the recent past is carried into the second half of the season, there is every chance 2017 could yet be a successful year for United, at least in some form. The club have the FA Cup to defend but are already in a League Cup semifinal with a good chance to partake the final at Wembley next month. The club is also listed as the bookies favourite to lift the Europa league come May. The size of the squad means that if the manager rotates efficiently, the club could afford to make it far enough into the competition without going full throttle.
Finally, there is a feel of genuine progress at United and there is every chance that what seemed like a dead rubber season could be turned into a very meaningful one. Of course, there remains a long way to go between now and May but at least fans can count on the bounce-back ability of the side after a poor result. Just like in the old days. More than anything, it was always a run of consecutive poor results that undid the club in the recent past. There were more ‘bad runs’ than good ones and in the end, it reflects on the league table. More than ever, it feels that the club has more good days ahead than bad ones. It is a belief that should keep United in good stead in the new year.