Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
On Sunday, Manchester United got the win they deserved, after a maddening run of three 1-1 draws where they had played well but ultimately paid a heavy price for botches in game management. A deserving win at last...That is how Jose Mourinho and a lot of other people will have viewed Sunday’s result against Tottenham, and there is not much wrong with that appraisal. United were the better team and deserved the three points, and they had also been the better team against Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton.
Yes, cruelly denied the three points in those three fixtures. It could also be argued that the late equalizers conceded against Arsenal and Everton were the punishments United deserved for not being able to kill the games off with a second goal or effectively ‘shut up shop’, and that the Spurs game was a rare lucky break after the second goal eluded them once more.
Either way, after a weekend where City lost and Liverpool drew, United’s circumstances are now much healthier and their spirits higher as they enter the frantic Christmas period. Beating Spurs, some say, could be the ‘turning point’ of a campaign that a week ago seemed hopeless from every angle, even as far as a Champions League place was concerned. Following draws with Liverpool and Arsenal and defeats against City and Chelsea, Sunday’s 1-0 victory was also their first ‘big’ win of the season against another top six club, giving them a significant psychological lift and putting them within three points of Spurs, seven points of Liverpool, and six points of 4th place Man City.
Still a lot of ground to make up, in other words, but not an impossible climb. If the title is still an unrealistic target, a top-four place no longer looks beyond them, which is a significant improvement, because going into the weekend, with 14 games played, United were trailing City and Liverpool by nine points - a reminder of how ugly their situation might have looked this week if results had gone the way most people thought they would.
“The gap might be already too large”, Jose Mourinho admitted two days before United dropped another two points against Everton. “I don’t know when we will [become Champions]. Maybe when I am not here, but that is what we are working towards and I think it will happen.”
It’s possible...But Mourinho was probably right to keep the timeline vague. Since the horror show at Stamford Bridge on October 23rd and before beating Spurs, United were unbeaten in five league games but won just one of them – a 3-1 win over struggling Swansea on November 6th…A second-rate string of results that were a stark contrast to their Europa League and League Cup form. The 4-0 stomping of Feyenoord, 4-1 victory over West Ham and 2-0 win over Zorya have been regarded as strange anomalies amidst a league run where they’ve scored just seven goals in the six Premier League games since the game Sky Sports dubbed ‘The Return’.
“Sometimes when a manager takes over a new club the differences in approach are not significant,” Mourinho said. “In that case all it needs is a little touch, just a fingerprint from the new man and you can get a lot from what was already there. Here we are trying to do something completely different. We could probably get better results if we weren’t trying to go in an opposite direction. I am not talking about tactical systems here. I am talking about the way this team wants to play and that is the most difficult thing in football to change. In the league we have not been getting the goals our performances deserve. There is no doubt we are improving, though.”
No doubt...United’s performances over the last few weeks, in a general sense, have been decent. The disappointment for fans this time round has been largely in the results, a grim clot of mediocre draws reminiscent of the van Gaal era, but which this time were put down to a combination of bad luck, poor finishing, and impressive opposition goalkeeping rather than any overall major fault with the style of play or tactics, as was the main gripe last season when the thought of even having to watch their team perform filled most United fans with dread.
The theory that Mourinho appears to be peddling, and that his apologizers are keen to go along with, is that what he’s trying to do is to change/restore United’s DNA while essentially working with van Gaal humanoids, attempting to get the team into some kind of untethered pre-van Gaal headspace and make them unlearn everything they’d been taught over the two preceding seasons...To get them back to ‘The United Way’, or some close incarnation of it. Which is a nice idea that most fans would consider worth waiting for, but many feel that after six months of working with the squad and the acquisition of players like Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Mkhitaryan, their league position should be higher than it is regardless of whatever overhaul Mourinho is trying to accomplish, and the goal tally should be higher.
United’s goal-scoring problem is an issue Mourinho publicly addressed last Friday when he called for more goals from the likes of Rooney, Martial and Rashford, who have scored less goals between them than Ibrahimovic has on his own...An obvious problem that will cripple their chances of mounting any kind of sustained challenge for a top-four spot, but one that Mourinho would probably feel a lot more comfortable acknowledging and talking about than the other main factor being attributed to United’s stuttering form – Mourinho himself.