Manchester United spent a lot of money this summer. Signing Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Eric Bailly created an expectation that, with United’s already big squad, the Premier League title would return to Old Trafford almost effortlessly. However, it took minimal evidence to show that such an assertion was ridiculous. Challenges would be laid ahead for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United to fend off, and now, having batted away the first swarm of them, United can begin to mount on the top four.
In retrospect, though, it seems United fans got a little bit carried away. Pogba, Ibrahimovic, and Mkhitaryan are incredible players that could catapult any team into the mix, as they have done, but to think United could fend off the opposition with minimal competition is nothing short of ludicrous. This error came as a result of underestimating the rest of the Premier League this season and looking at the statistics, this is a different league to what we’ve seen in the past 20 years.
Manchester United’s 40 points from 21 matches projects to 72 points, a tally which would’ve seen the Red Devils comfortably in second place last season. United will score more than 40 points from their remaining 17 matches, based on current form, and last season, opposition sides were significantly worse last year. None of the sides in the Premier League top six are perfect, but all of them are very, very good, and the margins are very low- in fact, this season, the defining margin could have been a tactical epiphany from Antonio Conte that allowed Chelsea to win thirteen consecutive matches.
The only way to guarantee success in this Premier League is to build a side distantly better than every other team in the league, and Manchester United hasn’t done that. In fact, speaking now, there are gaping holes in the squad that needs to be filled, because pretty much every player at the club needed to establish themselves under Jose Mourinho and many players have not done that.
Starting at right-back, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young seem to be the only players in contention with the attacking impetus to play in the position. Neither have a long-term future at the club, and Jose Mourinho needs to solve this problem. Phil Jones looked very shaky against Liverpool, and Chris Smalling has been shaky all season, while Mourinho doesn’t seem to fancy Daley Blind as a centre-back. Almost every team to win the Premier League had an established centre-back duo, and yet, Eric Bailly does not yet have a tried and tested partner. Chelsea, Tottenham, and even Liverpool have benefitted from having an established duo at the back.
Moving onto midfield, the sale of Morgan Schneiderlin leaves two backups to Michael Carrick- the polar-opposite Marouane Fellaini and the maligned Bastian Schweinsteiger. Carrick looked off the boil himself against Liverpool because he’s playing the role and minutes of a 25-year-old and cannot produce world-class performances every match. Perhaps Sean Goss (who trains with the first team) and Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be options, but Mourinho isn’t starting any youth players in matches, save for Marcus Rashford.
Mourinho has done well to sort out the right-wing at United, but the opposite side needs work. Anthony Martial seems to be the only player who is comfortable on the left, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, and Jesse Lingard looking significantly better from the right-wing. Memphis seems to be on his way out of the club, but is anyone coming in to replace him? These are gaping holes in the squad that has emerged from Mourinho’s discovery months at United, and the squad isn’t even the only problem.
United’s substitutions in an effort to reverse matches are evidence alone that the side is just a combination of random players, and not yet a cohesive unit, beyond the starting eleven. Against Liverpool, United had Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, and Marouane Fellaini as options, a lineup of players with no cohesive formula whatsoever.
United has been woeful in the big games this season, only picking up one win in six matches against top five opponents. A win, three draws, and two losses is not a record to remember by any sense of the word. The side has been quite unlucky in these fixtures, to be fair, but the fact a higher percentage of these matches can’t be won based on pure ability is an indicator that United isn’t clearly better than any other side in the top six.
In conclusion, sixteen matches unbeaten is a great feat, but it still leaves Manchester United in sixth place, and this shows that United will need to improve exponentially to guarantee the Premier League title in the near future. Manchester United is still a centre-back, right-back, midfielder, and Antoine Griezmann away from being arguably Premier League favourites, along with Jose Mourinho’s compliance with youth promotion, because while United’s identity is changing, youth products always seem to make this side better.
However, Mourinho is doing a great job and is proving that he can manage this squad to success. This isn’t meant to be a warning that United won’t reach their potential, but instead, a reminder that success is still a long way from here and results need not distort our perception of the point at which the Manchester United project has reached.