Saturday 21 October 2017

We're about to learn how good Jose Mourinho's Manchester United really are

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

Mark Critchley

Manchester United's season starts now. That’s a little inconvenient, given the two-week wait for the international break to end, but a look Jose Mourinho's diary shows why we may learn more about his side over the next month than we have in the last two.

That is not to say that United have not impressed so far. They have. The stodgy, stultifying play and the below-per performances that have defined the post-Sir Alex Ferguson finally appear to be receding from view. Mourinho’s team is powerful and pragmatic - rarely enthralling but usually effective.

19 points is the most that United have ever taken from their opening seven Premier League games and they have only reached it twice before - in 1999, off the back of the Treble, and in 2011, after they equalled Liverpool’s record of 19 top-flight league titles. The omens are good.

The only nagging doubt, especially after Manchester City’s statement win at Stamford Bridge, is that United are yet to meet a fellow top side. The fixture computer’s algorithms were kind to them when compiling the first few weeks of the new season and several of their opponents so far have been among the division’s most unimpressive teams.

Swansea City and Everton both look impotent, while Palace’s problems at both ends are well-documented. West Ham United were a flaming wreckage of a team when they arrived on the opening weekend and have only shown signs of recovery in recent weeks.

Leicester City are the best side to have come to Old Trafford so far and while they were competitive, United were dominant. It was a far more impressive win than the score line suggested.

Southampton at St Mary’s can frustrate any side, but the high turnover of managerial and playing staff there appears to have finally caught up with the south-coast club, who can no longer consider themselves ‘the best of the rest’. In the one match so far they have not won, the 2-2 draw at Stoke City, they came up against an organised but unspectacular side and were held.

All these fixtures and the 19 points they brought lead up to Anfield, United’s first destination after the international break, where they will meet a flawed Liverpool side. In the reverse fixture last season, Mourinho shut down the contest to come away with a 0-0 and United’s lowest share of Premier League possession since records began.

Would this new-look United do the same? Mourinho has suggested as much on several occasions already this season. “We try to play according to the qualities of our players,” he said earlier this month. “We try to play positive, we try to play good, but we try to win. If one day to win we have to play defensive football, we have to do it.”

A trip to Huddersfield Town follows Anfield and should not prove too challenging, with David Wagner’s Terriers wilting after a strong start, but the testing run of fixtures resumes the week after when Tottenham Hotspur arrive at Old Trafford. A date with Antonio Conte’s reigning champions Chelsea follows on Bonfire Night.

How Mourinho sets his players up in these two games, and whether they come away from this unfavourable run with a favourable set of results, will tell us much about United’s title credentials. Last season, they dropped points in eight of their 10 games against last season’s top five. That, as much as their struggles against lesser sides, scuppered their title and top-four aspirations.

If United’s start has taught us anything, it is that they have overcome their tendency to draw games they should win. Over the next month, they must start to win games they should draw.

Independent News Service

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