Sunday 25 June 2017

Carrick, defence and pressure on Pep: Five reasons why Man United are on their best run of form in eight years

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho shares a smile after the final whistle during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Manager of Manchester United, Jose Mourinho shares a smile after the final whistle during The FA Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Evan Bartlett

Manchester United have put their best run of form together since 2009, with the 4-0 victory over Reading on Saturday making it eight wins in a row and 14 games without defeat.

Before putting this run together, in which pundits have likened the side to the "United of old", Jose Mourinho's team had been wretched.

The club went through the whole of October without winning a Premier League game, including a 4-0 drubbing to Chelsea, before drawing four drab home league matches in a row.

Throughout that run, Mourinho insisted that he was "restoring the club's DNA" and, indeed, late wins over Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough in recent weeks were reminiscent of some of Sir Alex Ferguson's great sides.

So what's behind this renaissance?

The stability and experience of Carrick

The 35-year-old did not start a single league game for United in the months of August, September and October but after captaining the side in their 1-0 win over Manchester City in the EFL Cup has been almost ever-present.

While Carrick has never been blessed with great pace, his mind is still sharper than most of those around him and he keeps the United midfield ticking in a way that Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini have struggled to in the same position.

Of the 15 games Carrick has started this season in all competitions, United have won 13, drawn two and lost none. No wonder Mourinho is rumoured to be offering him a one-year contract extension.

Rojo and Jones partnership

Both players were linked with a move away from Old Trafford in the summer but the converted left-back and gaffe-prone centre-half have formed a rock solid combination in United's defence.

Admittedly Rojo was lucky not to have been banned for his lunging challenge on Everton's Idrissa Gueye just before this run got started, but after that stroke of fortune and a strong run of performances, Mourinho is reported to have made a u-turn on his future. Jones, meanwhile, is keeping Chris Smalling - so impressive last year - out of the side.

It is perhaps a sign of their good form just how few headlines David De Gea has made in recent weeks. He hasn't needed to.

Ibrahimovic continues to prove his critics wrong

Some eyebrows were raised when United chose a 35-year-old to lead their line this season, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been nothing short of a revelation.

Along with Paul Pogba, Ibrahimovic has brought a certain swagger back to United which has been sorely missing in the years since Ferguson's departure.

Only a harshly ruled out effort against Middlesbrough stopped the Swede equally Leo Messi's record of 51 goals in 2016.

He has, as he said himself, made his critics "eat their balls". United will be hoping he continues to do the same in 2017.

Pressure on Pep

It may have helped Mourinho's side slightly that the pressure has been off in recent weeks.

While United have quietly been putting a good run of games together, cross-town rivals Manchester City have been struggling for form and manager Pep Guardiola has been hitting the headlines instead.

Before this run of form, Mourinho was the one getting visibly frustrated with his side, falling out with journalists and being sent to the stands.

He will be hoping Guardiola keeps up his antics for as long as possible.

Easy fixtures...

While United have been impressive in recent weeks, there is no doubting the fixture list has aided them.

Tottenham, who they beat 1-0 last month, are the only side of any real calibre they have played since mid-November. Fixtures against the likes of Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Zorya Luhansk are games United should win in any season.

While they can only beat the sides put in front of them, their performance in next Sunday's clash against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool will be a true marker of progress.

(© Independent News Service)

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