In the 21 years Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United in the Premier League, the club never once finished outside the top three. In the four seasons since his retirement, they’ve yet to finish inside it.
It’s a stark reminder that, for all their sustained success throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Manchester United owed an awful lot to a certain wily Scotsman who just knew how to foster a winning mentality.
However, following a strong summer recruitment drive, that included the captures of Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, and an opening-day demolition of West Ham United, have Manchester United finally become legitimate title contenders under Jose Mourinho?
With the international break looming, United sit atop the Premier League table with a 100% record: nine points, ten goals scored and three clean sheets.
Mourinho utilised the transfer window exceptionally well
When Ferguson departed the club at the end of the 2012-13 season, he left in his wake possibly the most under-equipped Manchester United squad in decades. Ageing, slow and lacking in depth, the consensus was that major investment would be needed in order for his successor David Moyes to succeed.
And although he brought in Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million, followed by Juan Mata in January for £37.1 million, Moyes and Ed Woodward were notorious for their failures in acquiring top targets, and the club slipped to a lowly 7th-placed finish. This lack of precision in the summer months would be a trend that continued throughout Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure, as United adopted somewhat of a scatter-gun approach to the transfer market.
Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria, Falcao, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Anthony Martial have all joined for a combined fee of £400 million, with drastically varying results.
Conversely, this season, the club have been shrewd in the market. Deals for Lindelof, Lukaku and Matic were done before the season kicked off and, although Mourinho was left lamenting the failure to acquire a fourth target, the squad looks stronger and more balanced as a result.
Nemanja Matic, bizarrely deemed surplus to requirements by Chelsea, has been something of a revelation in centre-midfield, with his tenacious displays in the centre of the park allowing Paul Pogba greater freedom to roam up the pitch. In his opening three Premier League matches, the enormous Serb has averaged three tackles a game, maintained a passing accuracy of 88% and even dazzled the Old Trafford faithful with a series of deft turns and touches.
Similarly, Lukaku has also slotted seamlessly into Mourinho’s plans, and brings a different dimension to the game than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His willingness to stretch defences with runs in behind has reaped three goals (and he would have had another if he was even a semi-competent penalty-taker) and though his link-up play is decidedly weaker than the Swede’s, his considerable bulk means United still have a formidable target to aim for when launching counter-attacks.
Everybody is pulling their weight
Last season, Manchester United were extraordinarily reliant on the goal-scoring exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His 17 league goals constituted almost 35% of the club’s final goal tally in the league, with Paul Pogba a distant second in the scoring ranks with six.
Yet this campaign, the story couldn’t be more different for Mourinho’s men. While Lukaku has began his career at the club magnificently with three goals in three games, he’s been far from the only reliable outlet for goals. Pogba (2), Martial (2), Fellaini (1), Bailly (1) and Rashford (1) have ensured United have began the season in the best possible form.
Furthermore, 40% of the goals scored have come from the subs’ bench, meaning that Mourinho can finally boast an enviable depth in his squad – a hallmark from United’s championship-winning sides of years gone by, where Ferguson made ample use of the enormous firepower on his bench, perhaps most notably in the fabled Champions League final of 1999.
And it isn’t just the new recruits that have helped United progress in terms of their performances on the pitch. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose precocious talent was never in doubt, struck an inconsistent figure in the league last season: his scintillating scorpion-kick goal against Sunderland offset by the fact the Armenian playmaker only registered a single assist.
Following a strong pre-season, the former Dortmund man finally seems to be approaching the lofty heights his massive potential suggests. Five assists in his first three games appears to have cemented his status as the side’s pivotal creative threat.
Similarly, Phil Jones, a figure oft-maligned by Manchester United and football fans alike, has staked a strong case for becoming one of the club’s first-choice centre-halves. After years of inconsistency and troublesome injury problems, the 25-year-old has looked an assured fixture in Mourinho’s back four, with the manager going so far to confess this week that Jones has made a huge impression on him:
“He’s potentially a very good player. He’s still young. He’s still in a learning age but for years and years and years he was injury-prone.
If we manage to have him safe and protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender.”
And all this is without forgetting that the club have some considerable talent still sidelined through injury. Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all working towards returning to first-team action.
Turning draws into wins
Throughout the 2016-17 campaign, Manchester United were dogged by their inability to kill off teams when commanding a winning position. A record 15 draws essentially destroyed any hopes of finishing in the Top Four, and although the Europa League offered a way back into Europe, Mourinho couldn’t afford to fall back on ‘Plan B’ for a second season running.
A large proportion of these draws came against lower-placed sides – teams United were expected to beat. Both Swansea and West Ham took points off the Red Devils last season, and on both occasions, United failed to protect a one-nil lead. In fact, they dropped 10 points from winning positions; only Liverpool and Arsenal in the top six dropped more.
But this season, the problems that haunted a beleaguered United and threatened to derail their entire campaign, appear to have been rectified. This time around, Swansea and West Ham were defeated in emphatic fashion, 4-0 apiece. Mourinho, long renowned for being a defensive mastermind, has embraced the so-called ‘United way’ by urging his team forward in the latter stages of a game: two of the goals against West Ham arrived in the last ten minutes; three of the goals against Swansea came in the final 11 minutes; while both of the goals against Leicester were registered after the 70th minute.
Titles aren’t won and lost in August, but United are already laying down a clear marker for the chasing clubs to follow. Once the international break is over and the domestic season resumes, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace await Mourinho and his side. Tellingly, they failed to beat Everton in the league, dropped two points against Southampton and were held on both occasions by Stoke last season — all of which were games you’d be expecting Manchester United to win.
If this season’s exploits are anything to go by, the form United are in could see them face their first genuine test against Liverpool on the 14th of October with 21 points to their name. A more formidable position, Mourinho could not even dream of.
Of course, that being said, between now and the end of the season, a lot can happen. Phil Jones might well put himself out for six months getting out of the bath; Paul Pogba could still end up with more haircuts than goals; and Mourinho may well decide Jesse Lingard needs a run in the team.
But, if the signs are anything to go by, it seems Manchester United are finally back in a position to challenge for the Premier League title.