Other than the one about Anthony Martial, none of the worries outlined in last month’s TOP FIVE have really gone away. Manchester United have, of course, won a trophy since then—which was really nice—but have also missed out on a glorious opportunity to apply more pressure to those currently above them in the league by drawing at home with Bournemouth—which was really, really, really, really frustrating.
But the thing is, and this is incredibly hard to internalise in a world where United have spent a king’s ransom on player purchases, in a world driven by a relentless cycle of footballing immediacy, where everything is a glorious triumph or an abysmal failure, but the thing is…ambivalence is okay. Slow progress is still progress and while it looks like this season is falling short of expectation is it abundantly clear that in spite of all those concerns, Jose Mourinho is getting a lot of things right.
Here are a list of the TOP FIVE.
5. Dealing with Wayne Rooney
It’s just been a non-issue. He has quietly, without fuss, parked Wayne Rooney on the sidelines for emergency use only. It was absolutely fine that Rooney didn’t go to China when the rumours were circulating that he might, but it would also have been pretty okay if he had.
Either for reasons of political expediency or because he wanted to see the extent of Rooney’s decline first hand, the club captain began the season as a starter. Whether a deliberate plan to give Rooney enough rope to hang his United career with, or a genuine consequence of Mourinho seeing whether Rooney could be useful to him, the early stages of the season saw the club’s now-record goalscorer played until it became clear that there were better options. Then he was dropped, and basically no one has made any fuss. It’s been an amazing bit of politics from the manager who could have had a big problem on his hands, but now does not.
4. Getting the best out of some only okay defenders.
Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling have all had decent seasons. Jones and Smalling have made some fairly hefty howlers too, but basically, between Mourinho’s coaching and some good overall structural organisation, United have been solid at the back.
Indeed, it has been 31 games since Chelsea beat us 4-0, in which time we’ve conceded just 19 goals. That is not bad going at all, especially given there are not too many top clubs who would be after our defensive playing staff to strengthen their own endeavour. This is pretty much on Mourinho.
3. Ander Herrera FC
Louis van Gaal just could not bring himself to back Ander Herrera, and that was a huge mistake. He only ever turned to him when the going got tough. Then, generally, the going would get a bit less tough, because Ander Herrera is really good.
Mourinho has turned him into N’Golo Herrera, closing down tirelessly and—particuarly when Michael Carrick plays too—joining in with our attacking passages of play in a really productive manner.
He is hugely popular at Old Trafford, and deservedly so.
2. Making it fun again
There’s a reason “Something tells me” has become ubiquitous. United are fun to watch again, inarguably, joyfully, fun to watch. Not every game, certainly, but most. Even Bournemouth at home, that teeth-grindingly maddening game in which United’s performance disintegrated around itself had a brilliant first 20 minutes to enjoy.
They go for it almost all the time, and particularly but not exclusively when Henrikh Mkhitaryan is on the pitch, there is some really, really beautiful football being played. They still have a bizarre tendency to suddenly forget they’re brilliant, but when they click it’s great.
A lot of this fun has come from his work in the transfer market
Somehow a few rough games have convinced a section of the world that Paul Pogba is bad, but those people’s opinions can be handily discounted. Time is on Pogba’s side and the results will be spectacular.
Mkhitaryan is an actual magician, Eric Bailly had a shaky time at Wembley but has been generally excellent and for all the chances he has missed (and there have been plenty), Zlatan has been an asset in key moments, not the least of which being the goal that won it at Wembley.
Going to see United offers the possibility of magic again, and it has been a while since that was the case.
1. Winning a trophy
Ok, it’s “only” the League Cup, but in a season where only three domestic trophies are up for grabs, winning one of them is absolutely brilliant. Last season it was the FA Cup and that was great, and this season, so far, we know that at least one shiny thing will spend the year with us.
Being at Wembley and seeing United celebrating, surrounded by pyro and confetti was pretty magic, and it was Mourinho’s doing.
So there is much left to be done, but there can be no doubt he should be allowed to try and do it. Who knows how dramatic the improvement will be next season, or even how successful the rest of this season will be, but though worries remain, plenty is going in the right direction.