I try to resist the urge to look at any league tables until about October time because usually the first ten games of the season mean very little in the grand scheme of the entire campaign. Of course the points could end up proving crucial later on in the season, but a club’s league position so early on very rarely signifies where they’ll end up in May. For the same reason, making a statement such as “Manchester United could run away with the Premier League title this season” after just three rounds of fixtures is of course premature. I mean, last season their neighbours Manchester City won all of their opening six matches but ended up 15 points behind eventual champions Chelsea. But boy, does this Red Devils side look good.
Many people were expecting big things from United last season, and they certainly made all the right noises in the summer of 2016. In Jose Mourinho, they appointed a manager who had won a league title with four different clubs in four different countries. Free transfer Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a similarly impressive record as a player – he’d lifted a league trophy in nine of the last ten campaigns. Finally, they broke the world transfer record to bring Paul Pogba back to Old Trafford, a player who had become the most sought after young player on the planet.
In some ways, this new and improved team did live up to the hype. They lifted both the EFL Cup and Europa League, whilst in the Premier League only Tottenham Hotspur lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals. But the league campaign in general was massively disappointing. They were never really in the title race, drew more games (15) than any other team (making for less than entertaining football) and ended up in sixth position, seven points off the top four. Fortunately their Europa League success secured Champions League qualification.
One thing was clear. Jose Mourinho was not going to let it happen again. Yet this summer brought few changes. Indeed, according to experimental365, United’s squad has changed least in the Premier League from last season. Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were the only major departures, and of course the latter has since re-signed. Meanwhile, the already strong defence has been boosted by Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic has freed up Paul Pogba in the middle of the park and Romelu Lukaku now spearheads the team’s attack. So upheaval has been minimal, but it looks like a totally different side. Mourinho’s men look polished, well-organised and they are clinical – three wins from three games against West Ham (4-0), Swansea (4-0) and Leicester (2-0) mean they sit top of the table at this early, early stage. But all the signs point towards a first title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last campaign in charge in 2012/13.
You only have to look at Jose Mourinho’s managerial career to find one reason as to why that will be the case. The 54-year-old has never failed to win the domestic title in his second season at any of his clubs, including both spells at Chelsea, whilst at Porto and Inter Milan he also delivered the Champions League. In 2011/12, his Real Madrid side smashed La Liga records as they lifted the trophy ahead of a Barcelona team many felt could not be overthrown after three successive titles.
Now this isn’t just a coincidence. Mourinho has a clear blueprint every time he comes into a club in order to ensure the league is won within two years and it’s actually pretty simple. Like any new manager, he’ll implement his own tactics and strategies, and when Jose talks, you’re going to listen. It might take a while for a team to competently play ‘the Mourinho way’, but he won’t deter from hammering into the squad the way he wants them to play. This obviously doesn’t work if there are big personnel changes, and as such Mourinho very rarely makes drastic action in transfer windows, as already highlighted above in regards to this summer. So not only does the entire squad become very familiar with the system, they become very familiar with each other. Ricardo Carvalho, who worked under his compatriot at Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid has said exactly this, suggesting: “His second years are better than his first because the players know each other better.” Paul Pogba’s answer when asked why United are better this year is almost identical: “I think we’re more confident. We know each other more now it’s the second year.”
During pre-season, Mourinho himself revealed the value of the players being familiar one another. “There is another factor that is really important for us and that is for the players to be together 24 hours-a-day,” he said. “During two-and-a half-weeks we focus just on work and rest, know each other and welcome the new people, trying to make them adapt as soon as possible.” Arguably the most important area of the pitch for players to be familiar with one another is in the defence, and the fact that the Red Devils have kept the same back five (David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Daley Blind) for all three of their league games so far is a key reason for them being one of just two sides (along with Huddersfield) not to have conceded a goal so far this campaign. One may even suggest that Mourinho is hesitant to throw new signing Victor Lindelof into the defence due to a fear that it may disrupt that familiarity.
Whilst the Swedish international has yet to make an impact at Old Trafford, fellow newbie Nemanja Matic is another of the reasons as to why United have made such a blistering start to the season. He was somewhat of an unsung hero in Chelsea’s league winning midfield next to N’Golo Kante in 2016/17 and it is looking to be a very foolish decision by Antonio Conte to let the Serbian go to a rival this summer.
What Matic’s arrival in the North West has done has allowed Paul Pogba to move further up the field and have much more of an influence going forward. Whilst the Frenchman’s first campaign back at Old Trafford wasn’t poor, many felt that he was a little underwhelming as he registered just five goals and four assists. It took him league five games to begin either of those tallies. But just three league games into this campaign, and he already has two goals, one assist and two man of the match awards. A comparison of his offensive statistics between 2016/17 and 2017/18 only emphasises how beneficial a position switch has been. Last season he averaged 3.1 shots per game, 3.6 dribbles per game and created 1.9 chances created per game. These have all increased in the current campaign, albeit just three games in. Pogba now averages 4 shots per game, 4.7 dribbles per game and 2 chances per game (all stats from WhoScored). Carry on in the same way and he’ll surely beat the eight goals and 12 assists in his last year at Juventus that earnt him an £89 million price tag.
The final reason as to why United have so much potential this season is that they have learnt to be more clinical and kill teams off. In 2016/17, their tally of 54 goals scored was bettered by ninth place Bournemouth and was worse than David Moyes’ maligned side of 2013/14. Their shooting accuracy of 36% was a key reason for this. Already this campaign they’re nearly a fifth of the way to reaching 54 goals having hit both Swansea and West Ham for four.
Of those eight goals scored against the Swans and Hammers, five have come in the last minutes of the respective games. It shows how efficient the team are and the fact that they can score so quickly in succession (in the 87th and 90th minutes against the former and in the 80th, 82nd and 84th minutes against the latter) means that they have already solved last season’s problems of drawing too many games because they allowed the opposition to always be in the game. Four times last season did United concede equalising goals in the 79th minute onwards, but they’re not even giving their opponents that opportunity this time around. It is a trait that Mourinho’s title winning side at Chelsea had in 2014/15. On six different occasions did the Blues net twice in the space of five minutes to effectively end the game there and then.
The game against Leicester, undoubtedly a stronger team than both of the Red Devils’ previous two opponents, was killed off in a different way. With the game level, Romelu Lukaku saw his penalty saved in the 53rd minute and my mind was instantly reminded of when Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed from 12 yards against Bournemouth last season with the game at 1-1. United could find no way to go on and win that fixture, but this time around they went on to beat the Foxes with Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku coming off the bench to help secure a 2-0 win. Many people are saying it but it’s true – it was exactly the type of game that United would have drawn last season.
By signing Lukaku this summer, United now have a menacing attack that really only Liverpool can rival. Supporting the Belgian going forward are the aforementioned Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (who has three assists from three games), Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Maroaune Fellaini. Of course, all of these options can’t fit into the starting XI and as such, United’s ability to kill teams off is aided hugely by the talent they can call off the bench. Indeed, four of their ten league goals so far have come from substitutes. Add Zlatan Ibrahimovic into the equation when he returns to full fitness and the Red Devils could be rampant.
All of this analysis and these assumptions could come back to make me look rather silly if Mourinho’s side begin to stumble after the international break. After all, United did win their first three games last season before finishing sixth. But this team do look a hundred times better and Mourinho knows he has to deliver a title challenge. As long as they don’t get too complacent, the signs are very, very promising.