By Sean Ranson
I’ve just booked a weekend away at Center Parcs with my wife and daughter. I love Center Parcs – I find a few days in the forest inherently restorative. My dad on the other hand is always telling me how much of an overpriced, soulless, corporate juggernaut it is and that there are better alternatives all over the country.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Manchester United.
As a United fan, you’re always being told the club is ‘finished’, Jose Mourinho is ‘finished’, it’s a business not a club, the board are more interested in signing noodle partners than climbing the table etc., etc., ad nauseam.
And to look at the table, you might be inclined to believe them. Another season of scrapping for a place in the top four, of losing to teams like Watford, and travelling to the Ukraine on Thursday nights in November.
And while all this is not what United fans wanted, or indeed expected, from the first season of the Mourinho reign, it does somehow feel different.
You see, I’ve been doing a lot of existential thinking recently when it comes to United. Last weekend’s game against Watford (the return fixture of arguably this season’s lowest ebb – the defeat at Vicarage road in September) was what Fantasy Football aficionados will have you call “Gameweek 25”. After which we’re now two-thirds of the way through the season; the start of the run in.
So where are we? Compared to our rivals, our expectations, and Moyes.
Well the simplest answer is: 6th. Seemingly where United have sat in the table since Britain was inhabited by the beaker folk (2000BC apparently). But the team’s perpetual position just outside of any relevance doesn’t really tell the whole story.
For one thing, United spent a nose bleed inducing two hours in fifth on Satuday before the meekest of Spurs capitulations at Anfield. That aside, there is plenty reason for optimism.
United’s next four fixtures, none of which are in the league, could see them into the FA Cup quarter-finals and the Europa League last-16 and perhaps most significantly a second piece of Silverware in nine month. Reasons to be cheerful, x3.
Unlike under Moyes and LVG, United are hard to beat again. Not only this, but they have players who can turn bad performances around with a spark of brilliance. As evidenced by the turgid first 40 minutes against Leicester earlier this month, and the subsequent five minutes of wonder spearheaded by a certain Armenian (no not Cher).
There’s a proven goal scorer leading the line, albeit one that’s twice the age of the man (boy) closest to challenging his place on the teamsheet. There’s balance in midfield – maybe for the first time since Keano was raging around the place – and the form and character of Ander Herrera are among the most pleasing developments of the past few months
The manager also seems to genuinely relish his squad proving him and other doubters wrong with their performances, and the form of Messrs Rojo and Jones (and arguably the reintroduction of Bastian Schweinsteiger) demonstrate this. For better or worse sepia circus clown Marouane Fellaini has also been given plenty of opportunities to do the same. Club legend/icon/pantomime villain Wayne Rooney also seems to have accepted his diminished – albeit still useful – role in the team.
Away from the pitch, the scouting network has burgeoned significantly in recent months and the incessant injuries to key players suffered in the last few seasons have subsided. United are unbeaten in the league in 16 league games, just two points off third (four from second) and for the first time in years, everything feels…stable.
For all the positives though, there are still areas for significant improvement.
United still don’t score enough goals, and are far too reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the ones they do (he’s scored or assisted almost 50% of them in the league). And they still have a desperately annoying habit of not turning up for a first half of games and leaving it all to do in the second. As a result, there have been far too many draws this season.
There are also question marks over the futures of players who just 12 months ago seemed like they would be part of the furniture for years to come. It’s only right that the likes of Martial and Shaw fall under scrutiny, but so too the manager for his ‘tough love’ approach to their budding careers. After all, while both have been awful at times this season, no alternative has come close to excelling in their positions either. Call me old fashioned, but I think sometimes a youngster just needs to play their way out of poor form. To be fair to Martial in particular, he seems happy to do this, and was excellent again against Watford when called up on, but concern must remain for Shaw’s long-term future.
With crunch fixtures against Arsenal, City and Spurs away, and the champions-elect Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford still to come, it’s distinctly possible United will end this season relying on going all the way in the Europa League for a place at the top table next season. But the foundations are finally there to make 2017/18 a success.
It may be taking longer than we thought it would six months ago, but United are undoubtedly headed in the right direction.
Where have we heard that before?