How quickly the narrative can change. In November, with Manchester United slipping well off the pace in the Premier League and looking game for an early exit from the Europa League, the pressure began to build on new coach José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager had come off a disastrous season at Chelsea, which ended in his dismissal by Roman Abramovich for the second time. Had the maestro’s mojo truly gone? Certainly, there was plenty of evidence in United’s inconsistent performances and disappointing results to suggest as much. Just a few weeks and eight victories later, nobody will draw that conclusion. Mourinho and United are back.
True, this is a United side that may still fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League, and the Reds have beaten only Tottenham Hotspur among the top sides. Yet, the smoke signals suggest that Mourinho’s blend of pragmatism and a new-found love of attacking flair is paying dividends. The plan appears to be working.
Confidence has certainly returned to Old Trafford, as has some of the old arrogance. Last minute winners? Check! All out attack? Check! Controversy and the nation’s ire? Check! Boiled piss is undoubtedly a good sign.
The turnaround has come late in the first half of the season, following a succession of frustrating draws during the autumn. Eight victories across four competitions in November, December and January has signalled United’s return. The Reds may lie sixth in the Premier League table, but Mourinho’s team is just a victory away from the top four and remains in three cup competitions.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]How quickly the narrative can change. In November, with United slipping well off the pace in the Premier League, the pressure began to build. Had Mourinho’s mojo gone? Eight victories later, nobody will draw that conclusion. [/blockquote]
This is a long way from the very real prospect of a 14-point gap to Champions League qualification when Spurs faced United on 11 December. The Lillywhites were probably favourites to take the points that day as well. There have also been sound wins at West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace – victories that would not have come just a few weeks ago. What a difference a month or two makes.
The pieces were coming together before United’s recent winning streak though. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started the season as he finished the last with PSG, even if he did suffer a fallow period in the autumn during which he scored just once in 13 games. Paul Pogba began the campaign under immense scrutiny, but his performances have grown with each week. Meanwhile, Eric Bailly proved to be a revelation in defence from the campaign’s start. Of the summer’s new recruits, only Henrikh Mkhitaryan took time to work his way into Mourinho’s plans. What an impact the Armenian has enjoyed since coming into the team.
Outside the summer’s new signings, Ander Herrera has found a new lease of life under Mourinho, as have in more recent times Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. It is to the manager’s immense credit. Meanwhile, Juan Mata has enjoyed an excellent first half of the campaign, even if Mourinho’s gradual move to a 4-3-3 system is pushing the Spaniard towards the periphery.
Mourinho too has found some consistency: in approach, tactics and his relationship with United’s supporters. It took a little while, but just perhaps the club is changing the Portuguese in the way that David Moyes and Louis van Gaal could never quite accept. The latter pair suffered, as did United. Mourinho, seemingly, has far more answers than his predecessors, and is far more flexible too.
Questions remain, of course. Can this United side keep up the current level of consistency; will it beat the very best sides in the country? Both will probably need to be true for the Reds to qualify for the Champions League next season. Then, perhaps only then, can supporters dream of reaching for preeminence once again. The club is once again on the right course. 7/10
The new manager’s gravitas no doubt helped in the recruitment of two world-class stars – Ibrahimovic and Pogba – together with another pair of very fine players in Bailly and Mkhitaryan. But that gravitas has not always been evident this season, even if the Portuguese manager now claims that he never had any concerns about United’s progression. Indeed, at times, the pressure appeared to be getting to the manager: grumpy press conference performances, two sanctions from the FA, public criticism of prominent players.
Yet, Mourinho has made many of the big decisions required. Club captain Wayne Rooney, three years past his sell-by date, was dropped after seven games. It’s the conclusion Sir Alex Ferguson came to before his retirement, but Moyes and Van Gaal weren’t brave enough to follow. The Portuguese eventually brought Michael Carrick back into the side, although it was November before the veteran was a fixture for the Reds.
Most important of all, Mourinho eventually chose to build the team around Pogba, and not Rooney. In switching to a 4-3-3 system, the manager has dispensed with a number 10, but freed the Frenchman to do what he does better than most: drive from midfield, create chances and dominate games. In turn, United’s style has changed from the antiquated approach used by Moyes, to the prosaic offered but y Van Gaal, to something altogether more direct and dynamic under Mourinho.
Mourinho has garnered the best from a number of fringe players, while drawing star turns from Herrera, Mata, Pogba and, eventually, Mkhitaryan. The criticism that he took too long to bring the Armenian into the side is fair, although United will at least benefit from the player’s freshness as the season draws to a close. Mourinho could have used Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford more, and in more central areas, but the pair do appear to be coming into form now.
Those that Mourinho has ostracised, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, are probably not good enough to be at the club, or at least haven’t done enough to justify a place. Mourinho has at least been clear, even if each has cause to feel aggrieved at the lack of opportunities. 7/10
David de Gea
Three times United’s player of the year, de Gea is hoping for a far quieter campaign this time around. As ever, the Spaniard has been near flawless, with fewer standout performances if only because others have taken the limelight. It’s about time. Even if de Gea garners fewer headlines this season, he remains one of the two finest goalkeepers on the planet. The five-year contract signed last year is looking very good business for United. Appearances: 26 | Assists: 0 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 8/10
At least any pretension to the throne has gone. Romero is far from the world beating goalkeeper some hipsters proffered the Argentine to be, but with appearances limited to cup competitions, the former Monaco stopper can at least do little damage. That De Gea remains injury free is a huge blessing. Appearances: 6 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
The Italian has struggled to recover from second half of last season when his fitness was as inconsistent as his form. The former Torino player is a sound defender, but his lack of attacking prowess means that there are likely to be few opportunities in a Mourinho team that relies on full-backs for width. Darmian is an option when fit, but it would surprise few if he moves on next summer when Mourinho may well look to undo the transfer market damage done under Moyes and Van Gaal. Appearances: 12 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
There have been plenty of occasions during Valencia’s conversion from tepid winger to amateur full-back, when the Ecuadorian gave a good impression of being the weakest link in the chain. No longer. Mourinho has polished an unknown gem, moulding Valencia not only into a more confident attacker, but a better-than-average defender. There’s no guarantee that he remains the long-term option, but for now Valencia is enjoying a fine season. Appearances: 22 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 7/10
What a disappointment it will be if Shaw does not make it at Old Trafford. After all, the basic toolset is there – pace, attacking talent to spare, defensive nous greater than his youthful age should afford. Yet fitness, form – sometimes both – have let the player down once again this season. Rumours that Mourinho is not enamoured with the Englishman grow stronger by the day. It might just be that Shaw has the next five months to resolve his issues or face a career away from Manchester. That would be a sad outcome indeed. Appearances: 14 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
What a difference a new manager makes. Rojo was not fully trusted by Van Gaal, nor fit enough, often enough, to prove the Dutchman wrong. When the former Sporting player was fit, his performances infrequently rose above calamitous. Many expected Rojo to move on last summer; most supporters would have welcomed it. Yet, here he is, a fixture in the first team and possibly in the best form of his career. Appearances: 23 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 7/10
Blind exceeded expectations in a central defensive role last season, although there was plenty of evidence that it is a position to which he is ill-suited. The Dutchman briefly appeared in the role for Mourinho this season, and has featured often at left-back where he is far more comfortable, although he is not guaranteed to be first choice in that position either. Blind remains a useful squad player who rarely lets the team down, underlined by the number appearances he has made this season. Appearances: 22 | Assists: 2 | Goals: 1 | 6/10
Smalling was an outstanding performer last season, becoming first choice both for United and England after years of inconsistency and injury. The former Fulham defender has not enjoyed life under Mourinho to the same extent, having begun the season on the bench. He forced his way into the team, forming a promising partnership with Bailly, only for a broken toe to open the door to Rojo and compatriot Phil Jones. Smalling holds the talent to earn another shot, but the position at centre back is now more competitive than many had realised. Appearances: 15 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 1 | 6/10
This time last year Rant wondered “how many chances” the former Blackburn player might have left. One more, apparently, and he has taken it with gusto over the past two months. Part defender, part casualty of his own war, Jones has rarely been fit enough, long enough to hold down a position in United’s back four. He has been at the club for five and a half seasons. Last summer Mourinho would have been forgiven for moving the Englishman on. Now Jones is an asset once again. Until he is inevitably injured, of course. Appearances: 13 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 6/10
The Ivorian may have cost upwards of £30 million, but it is already looking like a bargain. Fast across the ground, strong in the tackle, and so very comfortable on the ball, Bailly has all the tools to become a major hit at Old Trafford. There are certainly lapses of concentration, but that is forgivable in a young player in his first season in England. What a pity that the former Villarreal defender suffered injury before joining his country at the Africa Cup of Nations tournament. There will be plenty to offer United as the season draws to a close. Appearances: 18 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 8/10
The Spaniard remains United’s most creative player, and at times has excelled as the team’s creative heartbeat in the number 10 role to which he is naturally suited. Mourinho’s decision to move away from a template 4-2-3-1 system to something that looks a little more like a three-man attack has not worked in Mata’s favour, nor has Mkhitaryan’s emergence over the past two months. Mata is likely to make very important contributions before the season closes, and is one of the Reds’ best performers this season – but he may not always be the first name on Mourinho’s team sheet. Appearances: 25 | Assists: 4 | Goals: 6 | 8/10
Don’t let negative reviews fool you; Pogba is an outstanding player, becoming an ever more outstanding performer with each passing week. There are high expectations for the Frenchman, of course, and the fourth estate is all too happy to highlight anything that falls short of the very highest standards. Yet, Mourinho’s decision to build a team around the 23-year-old is probably the best move that United’s new manager has made this season – for player and team. Pogba is now dominating games. Good news for the rest of the campaign, bad news for United’s rivals. Appearances: 26 | Assists: 4 | Goals: 6 | 9/10
It bordered on the criminal that the Basque was not in Van Gaal’s team every week, but there was always something about his tenacity in the tackle and range of inventive passing that would appeal to Mourinho. Herrera has become an outstanding all-rounder performer for the Portuguese manager, at both number eight and six, offering balance to the side and freeing up Pogba to perform in more attacking areas. Van Gaal paid for his mistake, Mourinho is benefiting from trusting the former Atletico Bilbao player. Appearances: 25 | Assists: 6 | Goals: 1 | 8/10
The Mancunian is an important squad player, offering an impressive work rate, tactical nous and a penchant for a spectacular strike. There are times when Lingard’s talent has been dismissed, but he deserves his place in the United squad. Yet, that lack of composure in front of goal is too often apparent, and he hasn’t progressed as far under Mourinho as some others in the squad. Still, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for Lingard this season, even with Mata and Mkhitaryan ahead in the pecking order for a place on the right side of United’s attack. Appearances: 18 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 3 | 6/10
What exactly was Mourinho thinking by leaving the Geordie out of his side for much of the first two months of the campaign? Carrick’s composure, ability to quickly recycle the ball, and defensive nous has been crucial to United’s revival. Carrick’s reintegration into the United side has also empowered Pogba to push forward with more freedom. It took a long time coming, but Mourinho eventually made the right call. He has earned the new one year contract, which is seemingly on offer. How United will miss the 35-year-old when he finally retires. Appearances: 16 | Assists: 1 | Goals: 1 | 7/10
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]What exactly was Mourinho thinking by leaving the Geordie out of his side for much of the first two months of the campaign? He has earned a new contract, and United will miss the 35-year-old when he finally retires.[/blockquote]
Now into his fourth season as a United player, and there are still few stranger acquisitions in the club’s recent history. Fellaini is neither a good defender, nor a good attacker, poor in possession, and a tactical liability. Yet, Mourinho, like Moyes and Van Gaal before him, seem enchanted by Fellaini’s myth: that he can perform in midfield at the highest level, that he’s good in the air, that he’s an attacking threat. He is none of those things. Appearances: 20 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 5/10
Frozen out by Mourinho and destined for Everton. The Frenchman is a willing player, but a little short on quality given the standards normally set at United. It was to Schneiderlin’s misfortune that Van Gaal classified the former Southampton player as a defensive midfielder. He is not, but in that observation is also the realisation that he is competing against Herrera and Pogba for a place in the team. Appearances: 8 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 3/10
The German is five years past his peak and, at times, looked it last season. Although Schweinsteiger is a natural leader and remains classy on the ball, it did not take Mourinho long to realise that the former Bayern Munich player has no place at United. He will surely leave the club this winter. Appearances: 2 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 2/10
Young has contributed little this season, save for an occasional appearance from the bench or stint as a reserve full-back. The Stevenage-born player has Van Gaal to thank for a three-year contract extension that’ll keep the former England player at Old Trafford until 2018, on more than £100,000 per week. Good business if you can get it. Appearances: 10 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 3/10
The Dutchman arrived with fanfare, a huge price tag and a love of attention. No longer a big fish in a small pond, Memphis has never come to terms with what it means to be a United player. The raw talent has never really filtered through and Mourinho is not prepared to offer the winger more time in the team. It’ll be good for the player to move on, although an opportunity lost for all parties. Appearances: 6 | Assists: 0 | Goals: 0 | 1/10
The Frenchman’s brilliance has taken a long time to blossom this season, after personal problems, a summer away with France, and a manager unwilling to compromise standards conspired to hold the player back. There are signs that the Martial of old is ready to break out though, albeit the forward must be content with a place on the left wing if he is to become a fixture in Mourinho’s team. Appearances: 19 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 6 | 6/10
Was it worth the wait? Mourinho claims credit for holding the brilliant Armenian back, although there remains the nagging feeling that Mkhitaryan could have contributed much to United’s inconsistent first four months of the campaign. All that can be forgotten now though. Mkhitaryan will almost certainly enjoy a highly productive second half of the season, with his ability to unlock defences in the final third by running at pace now essential to United’s approach. His scorpion kick against Sunderland on Boxing Day will live long in the memory. Appearances: 16 | Assists: 2 | Goals: 4 | 8/10
The teenager has been part of United’s first team squad for a little under a year and what a 12 months it has been. Rashford first came into Van Gaal’s team out of necessity and stayed there on merit, scoring eight times and earning a call-up to the England squad for Euro 2016. The Mancunian’s second season has been more of a struggle, with an extended period on the left seemingly impacting the player’s confidence, as well as that goal output. Opportunities in cup competitions will come, but the 19-year-old will have to accept that he is unlikely to dislodge Ibrahimovic from Mourinho’s first team any time soon. Appearances: 26 | Assists: 3 | Goals: 6 | 6/10
Zlatan has spent much of the season being, well, Zlatan. On the pitch Ibrahimovic is a conservative mover until the optimal moment, although it is noticeable that his tendency to drop deep has been reigned in by Mourinho’s switch in formation. His goals now number 18 in all competitions, despite a lengthy fallow spell through the autumn. Not bad for an old man. The Swede is also a bone-fide leader in a squad that used to contain too many shrinking violets. Vital to United’s hopes of winning silverware and getting back into the Champions League. Appearances: 28 | Assists: 5 | Goals: 18 | 8/10
This time last season Rant described the United captain as “a problem whose solution is found only on the bench.” No longer the beneficiary of Moyes’ fawning or Van Gaal’s “special privileges,” Mourinho took the only rational decision and dropped Rooney, enabling the team to find a new focal point and move on in the captain’s absence. Not that all of Rooney’s performances have been poor this season, and he has garnered a large number of assists as well. If the Scouser can provided a rotation option, or offer positive cameos from the bench it will go some way to justifying Moyes’ most destructive legacy: Rooney’s £13 million annual salary. Appearances: 23 | Assists: 10 | Goals: 4 | 6/10