Few things in football are half as bad as an International break on the back of a league defeat. That bitter taste of defeat gets to linger on for a couple of weeks with no immediate healthy remedy. Then there’s the futile effort to avoid the TV highlights if only to avoid opening old wounds. But it’s been just that at Manchester United since the debacle at Stamford Bridge that, in context, played to the tune of Manchester United premier league visits to that part of West London.
Jose Mourinho could only point to the injury returnees after the International break as a potential clutch to which fans should hold onto amidst the narrative that the league title is out of the club’s reach for yet another year. And yet, the first snow of the holidays has barely fallen. Indeed, there will be nothing special about clawing back an eight point deficit in November if only because greater, and stranger things have happened down the premier league years.
And so perhaps the International break was a timely pause to take stock of Manchester United’s season so far and realistically grade it. On paper, it reads: 2nd in the league, won all Champions League games so far and in the last 8 of the League Cup. Not bad eh? The dismissal of United’s Champions League group as light-weight is countered by the fact that not long ago, we couldn’t get out of a similar Champions League group game. Perhaps there is progress in the fact that the Group stage phase of the Champions League is back to the fodder status in which we once perceived it to be. And yet that eight point deficit in the league has caused such derision that at times it feels like United’s plight this season is no different to when they were consistently languishing in 6th place a few months ago.
Of the points dropped by Manchester United so far this season, only three rank as unacceptably dropped points…..and they were left at Huddersfield Town. United will have to win some unexpected points sometime this season to make up for that but that can only be along one of the various crossroads at which United find themselves this season.
With apparent managerial discontent over transfers, or injuries or lack of appreciation for his achievements in the game, or simply an innate desire to create conflict even in an empty room, there is a historical precedent to how things could end up at management level. A meltdown. The kind that could see the season go up in smoke amid a cataclysmic breakdown between players and managers leading to industrial action of sorts. The caveat to this proposed turn of events is that we know the manager to suffer all this in his third season at whichever clubs he has managed, normally after a successful second year. We also now know that the manager has been scouting transfer targets for summer of 2018. It is a long-term thinking that is inconsistent with current talk of a rift between the club’s hierarchy and the manager.
And yet, like previously alluded to, if the league table does not lie, United are currently second best in England. Regardless of people’s sentiments, they are the best placed side to challenge City for the league title. Another potential route from hereon is therefore to knuckle down and get about the business of winning football matches, taking advantage of the fact that the club is scheduled to be at full strength in December and taking all 18 points on offer during the month. Admittedly, this turn of events is the least popular among fans, not least because in football, you are only as good as your last result….and United are on the back of a poor one.
One optimistic perspective holds that Manchester United have managed just about to stay afloat during a sticky patch in which they have desperately missed their best player for 12 games. Whilst it is simplistic to conclude that everything in the past two months has come down to an injury, it is important to remember that the said injury was to one of a couple of players in the team who do not have a like for like replacement or even close for that matter! The knock-on effect to the players in situ has been tangible.
Against Newcastle United under the lights at Old Trafford on Saturday evening, United will have the chance to move on from the poor result in London and perhaps kick-start their season. It’s a marathon between now and the next International break in March, at which point we’ll know definitively which route United’s season took. As it is, it is far too early to throw in towels, et al, ages before a ‘phat’ lady has picked up a microphone or something like that.