With the premier league’s infamous festive period now well and truly underway, I assess the opportunity its creates for Jose Mourinho and how seizing results in these next run of games will prove vital if United are to be with any chance of playing Champions league football next year.
As we are all aware, it has been far from the fairytale start to life at Old Trafford for Jose Mourinho. With a poor goal and points tally, an array of lacklustre performances and an overpowering team-selection headache, Manchester United looked far from the finished article early on in the season. Especially with rivals Chelsea and Manchester City flying out of the blocks, all guns blazing, it appeared that they had left a Manchester United-shaped dust cloud in their wake. Initially, there was nothing to separate the three. Three games in, three wins for each team. This was of course until the Manchester derby in early September. A game in which the Old Trafford faithful saw Pep Guardiola’s men run riot in a dominant 2-1 defeat. Since then, United’s form dipped and the derby was followed by a long, strung-out run of frustrating and unrewarding fixtures. With draws to Burnley, Everton, Arsenal, Stoke, Liverpool and West Ham, it seemed like United had discovered a frustrating inability to close the games. What must have been more frustrating for Mourinho would be the fact that it was hard to criticise United’s performances for mostly anything other than scoring goals. Controlled and dominant performances were common; each game however was marred with a failure to take all three points.
After the Everton draw, United’s luck began to turn. They are now on the back of four straight wins, a rapid and effective improvement. I narrow it down to two reasons. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in form, a player that not only provides week-in week-out goals, but also a natural leader. Ibrahimovic oozes exuberance and confidence, his influence clearly has a huge effect on the players in the dressing room and out on the pitch. His recent goals and have helped United to lift this season’s curse of the inability to score late on, something that would never have been associated with the club until late.
I feel more importantly, Mourinho has found his team and he deserves credit. After weeks of experimenting, Mourinho seems to have found nearly all the right connections in his side. The decision to play Carrick, Pogba and Herrera alongside each other has created something of a formidable midfield trio. Carrick’s confident and forward thinking play allows Pogba and Herrera to release themselves and link up with the strikers, a combination which has lead to few of United’s goals now. Mourinho has formed another impressive partnership from the unlikely defensive duo of out-of-favour Jones and Rojo. The two players have impressed of late and their willingness to fight in everysingle game will make it hard for players like Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly to find a starting place in this side. The final piece of the puzzle however, is the palyer that has been on everybody at old traffords lips of late, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armernia midfielder’s transition into the side has been something of a hot-topic, but at the same time, something Jose Mourinho deserves credit for. After waiting for the right moment to deploy the winger, Mourinho brought him into the side. Mkhitaryan’s lighting-bolt pace and slick dribbling were apparent from the off and it seemed that he was ready. In his first few games the midfielder assisted and scored a handful of goals before coming off injured after a tackle from Danny Rose. The question is however, is it too little too late for Mourinho’s men?
To finish in a respectable position Manchester United need to act quickly. The games are coming thick and fast and United are coping well. They are now entering what is believed to be one of the easier runs of games this season. For Mourinho to climb higher in the table, he must keep the momentum up and ensure that the the players remain focused, both on and off the pitch. A slip in form now could prove catastrophic for United as an easier opportunity to go on a run may no present itself again this season. Although confidence has improved in this United team, everyone must not forget that it is still make or break and they have everything to play for.
United may have the fixtures on their side now but the last thing they must do is become complacent against a lesser team. Their next four premier league games are against 18th placed Sunderland, 14th placed Middlesbrough, 13th placed West-Ham and bottom of the table Hull City. Now is the time for both Mourinho and the players to prove themselves by taking advantage of these kind fixtures and creating a pattern from which they can propel themselves forward for the rest of the season.
With Ibrahimovic now having scored 10 goals in his last 9 matches and improved performances from a large handful of players, the stage is set for United. Regardless of where Manchester United finish, I firmly believe that this next period of games will be pivotal in terms of where they end up this season. A successful run of wins would put the win-streak to 7 and United will have real confidence-backed momentum. A few bad results however would not only only worsen the gap, but deflate the team-spirit. United will have to do everything they can to avoid playing yet another season of catch-up.