Cast minds back to Wednesday night. United were sat in sixth place (still) and were five points behind rivals Liverpool and just a solitary point behind Manchester City in fifth. Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea had all dropped points the night previous and the door was somewhat ajar for Jose Mourinho and his side to claw their way back into contention for a top-four finish and the absolute bare minimum expectation for any Manchester United side. Hull City were the opponents, they were beleaguered and in the midst of a relegation dogfight with a new man at the helm. The game was at Old Trafford, United were the heavy favourites.
Not for the first time this season Manchester United failed to capitalise on teams above them dropping points. It’s happened twice already this season and is reflected in the league positions of the last three years. When things were going wrong under Sir Alex Ferguson this was to the case. It appears to be something of a rule of thumb, hanging above the club like a bad smell that has been immovable for several years now and could well spell the end for yet another manager unless Mourinho can find a way around it.
I was genuinely ready to be writing this in the wake of another defeat in what could have otherwise been a massive step forward, but fortunately, a confident and dominant performance away at the Champions has afforded the opportunity for positivity, rather than seeing it as the exception to prove the rule. It gives a frame of reference as to how Mourinho can move forward from this and look to overcome this long-standing problem at the club.
Whether it is a mental issue the players have is a possible cause. The number of title winners in the side is on the decline as veterans bid farewell and fresh blood enters the fray, the players being bought in aren’t used to the immense pressure the Premier League brings and how that grows with one mistake. If United lose next weekend and Everton and Liverpool win, United will be closer to seventh than fifth and the fallout from seventh has already been experienced in recent history. There are those that have experienced it, and they can be useful in this scenario.
No one more so than the manager. As the one that must remedy it, he is the one that must influence his players and recall the mentality he has two years ago – before his tumultuous final season at Chelsea – and instill that in them. This isn’t the only hurdle Mourinho must jump to overcome this problem, performances, and side selection are the two bigger issues in this. Picking the correct players and ensuring the performances are consistent with when the other sides are winning are both vital to curing the ailment. Resting players is all well and good, but replacing them with the right fit is even more so.
With any luck the Leicester City game won’t turn out to be the exception that proves it, but I know I am not the only one that enters a round of fixtures fitting with this scenario with dread, confidently proclaiming a draw or defeat is the only possible outcome. The top four is now well within reach, and Mourinho more than anyone knows how to get players performing in times of hardship. Fail to do so and he pays with his job, a job he’s wanted forever, Mourinho’s got this.