Half empty or half full for United
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.
Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney makes his point during Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Arsenal.