Manchester United’s warm weather training got the stamp of vindication with a relatively comfortable 3-0 home win over Stoke at Old Trafford. The vibe from the camp over in Dubai was that it was a much welcome break away from the routine that footballers can get caught up in over a season. Indeed, at some point over the festive schedule, it appeared United were lulled into a sleepwalk over games so much so that the team posted a trio of consecutive stalemates that accounted for a double-digit deficit from the summit of the league. Now that United are awake again, perhaps a stock of what’s left of the season as well as a look ahead to 2018 and beyond is a necessary exercise.
Off the pitch, the Christmas season was riddled with comments of frustration from the manager about a perceived failure by the Board to be more ruthless in the transfer market. Jose Mourinho, hardly one to mince his words, let it be known at across the City, United were miles behind in terms of their recruitment and that more…..much more in fact would be needed to challenge the growing establishment and restore United to the leadership of the country’s football pyramid.
The said comments quickly degenerated into talk of job dissatisfaction and a search elsewhere for employment. Given the available precedents, stories in the press of an abdication to Paris seemed solid. And yet, nothing of the sort materialised. In fact, hindsight offers that Mourinho’s in-house grumblings were a tactic during his contract extension (yes, you read that right) negotiations with Manchester United.
It’s a turn around that has somewhat dampened the media narrative around United’s performance this season and the future of their manager. Indeed, it’s worth repeating the sentence that despite what is currently happening at City, United have improved this season. The progress over the first 18 months in the job is a marked departure from the stunted growth United suffered under the couple of managers immediately after Sir Alex left. And whilst second place is by no means guaranteed at this stage of the season, it will still be a measured achievement if Jose can keep United second only to City come the end of the season.
On the pitch, the new season will obviously come with added pressure depending on how the rest of this season pans out but United already appear intent on matching their rivals in the market and improving their squad to cope with that pressure. For instance, if the club manage to secure the services of Alexis Sanchez, it effectively means United can concentrate their resources in the summer on defensive options. Either way, a third Mourinho campaign doesn’t seem like its going to be as disastrous as precedent suggests.
That though is in the medium term. The here and now still offers United Cup success both domestically and abroad although lifting the Champions League in May is something the most optimistic would expect at this stage. Regardless, there’s plenty of fight the club has on their hands to retain its position in the league and that should be enough to keep United awake between now and when European competition resumes.
Still on the pitch, and despite the player turnover since Louis van Gaal, United are still structurally off the pace in terms of their approach. For whatever reason, United shoot and cross less than the rest of the members of the top six and concede more shots on their goal (thank goodness for Dave) than their rivals. A lot of the play still depends on going through the middle with a real dearth of width. This is the part that puts United’s failure to get Mourinho a wide man in the summer gains perspective. It was and is the basis of the mid-season lamentations from the manager about United’s inadequacies despite spending a fortune in the market.
Long term, a Sporting Director of some sort is expected to join the club, but word is that he/she will not be in charge of any sort of transfer activity. United are sticking by their age-old tradition of handing the manager complete control of the human resource. Whilst that is admirable in itself, it remains to be seen whether any tangible long-term results will emerge because as it stands, this is another facet of the club in which United trail the other members of the top six bar Arsenal who are still under the spell long cast by their longest and most successful manager. Elsewhere, Spurs, City, Chelsea and Liverpool all have somebody that conducts transfer business with a vision longer than the span of their current manager.
It’s a bit of a conundrum for United because whereas their tradition emboldens the manager’s position and plans, it heavily relies on the same manager being in situ for a prolonged period of time. This is why awarding Jose Mourinho a contract extension works to the benefit of United’s model more than fans will immediately realise. Indeed, the start of next season will see the Portuguese become the longest-serving manager at the club since Sir Alex. Given that managerial changes have been followed by huge player turnover causing a reboot of the system, United will greatly benefit entering a third straight season under the same manager.
More than anything, demand for progress becomes more reasonable and realistic. A return to the summit of English football was hardly ever going to materialise over a span of a season given that United’s model is still defined by managerial certainty. If Mourinho restores the club to their past heights in the summer of 2019, it will be largely because for the first time in ages, United have elected not to chop and change as soon as the first dark clouds gathered.