Half empty or half full for United

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

MANCH­ESTER, ENG­LAND — Manch­ester United might fin­ish the sea­son with two tro­phies, a place in the Cham­pi­ons League and a gen­uine sense that the club’s old aura is slowly be­ing re­stored.

Not a bad start to the Jose Mourinho era, many will say.

Still, there are some sights that would trou­ble even the most ar­dent of United fans.

First is the ob­vi­ous one: the league stand­ings. United is in fifth place — it could be sixth come Wed­nes­day evening — with two weeks of the sea­son left, and the team is likely to fin­ish out­side the top four for the third time in the past four years.

An­other is a glance at the team’s away record against its big­gest ri­vals. United hasn’t scored a goal in five away matches against teams in the top six this sea­son, in­clud­ing the loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup.

Then, there are re­cent ex­am­ples of Mourinho’s cau­tious ap­proach: Play­ing with 10 men be­hind the ball for the en­tire sec­ond half in the Manch­ester derby last month.

Or at­tack­ing mid­fielder Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan tak­ing over throw-in du­ties from Mat­teo Darmian against Arsenal on Sun­day so the left back could re­turn to the de­fen­sive line. Mkhi­taryan, the player of the year in Ger­many last sea­son with his flair and vi­sion, vir­tu­ally played as a wing back at Emi­rates Sta­dium, as did play­maker Juan Mata on the right flank.

This was hardly the bold­ness that marked out United un­der Alex Fer­gu­son.

Mon­day marked four years since Fer­gu­son an­nounced his re­tire­ment af­ter al­most 27 years in charge at Old Traf­ford, and, af­ter the for­get­table tenures of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, United fi­nally has a man­ager of Fer­gu­son’s grav­i­tas in Mourinho.

Like Fer­gu­son, Mourinho is a win­ner — cap­tur­ing the League Cup in Fe­bru­ary and po­ten­tially the Europa League in two weeks is tes­ta­ment to that — but will Mourinho ever recre­ate the swash­buck­ling sides of the Fer­gu­son era?

Af­ter 25 games and nearly 200 days, United’s long­est un­beaten run in a sin­gle sea­son is over fol­low­ing the 2-0 loss at Arsenal.

As are the team’s top-four am­bi­tions, if you lis­tened to Mourinho af­ter the game.

At the end of it all, the ques­tion has to be asked: Was it worth it?

United drew 12 of those 25 games and still finds it­self only in fifth place.

Wouldn’t it have been bet­ter for United to go for it more in some matches, and there­fore risk de­feat, in an at­tempt to turn draws into wins?

In­stead, Mourinho finds it eas­ier to set his side up to not lose.

Where he has gam­bled, how­ever, is re­ly­ing on win­ning the Europa League to se­cure a Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion spot, rather than achieve it via a top-four fin­ish in the Premier League.

His line­ups and risk-averse tac­tics for re­cent matches against City and Arsenal may have en­sured United won’t climb above its cur­rent po­si­tion of fifth.

“Tro­phies make his­tory,” Mourinho said. “Not league po­si­tions.”

Mourinho has in­jury prob­lems, al­though they are start­ing to clear, and United is in the midst of a gru­el­ing sched­ule of a match ev­ery three or four days. They’ve played 59 games and count­ing this sea­son.

Still, the club has spent some­thing ap­proach­ing $600 mil­lion on new play­ers over the last three off­sea­sons — $375 mil­lion across two sum­mers un­der Van Gaal and close to $200 mil­lion un­der Mourinho — and has a deep squad. A sup­pos­edly weak­ened start­ing team against Arsenal still cost about $300 mil­lion to as­sem­ble.

Paul Pogba, signed for $116 mil­lion in Au­gust as the most ex­pen­sive player in soc­cer his­tory, hasn’t had the im­pact that was ex­pected. But that may be be­cause his game is slightly negated by Mourinho’s tac­tics and the way the team is set up.

There is set to be more heavy spend­ing in the up­com­ing off-sea­son, ahead of Mourinho’s sec­ond year in charge. There will be no ex­cuses, then, if United fails to mount a gen­uine ti­tle chal­lenge.

MATT DUN­HAM, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Manch­ester United’s Wayne Rooney makes his point dur­ing Sun­day’s 2-0 loss to Arsenal.

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