This season, Manchester United’s weekly performances have become fairly predictable. One or more of the following will tend to occur: they will play appallingly in the first half only to look like a totally different side in the second, they will give away at least one goal because of amateur defending, and they will miss the easiest of chances.
In United’s win over Bournemouth, all three aspects were on show, with Jose Mourinho’s team undeserving of being level at half-time, after Callum Wilson took advantage of United’s poor defensive work before Anthony Martial scored to equalise.
However, after the break, United played some really nice football and had the chances to go at least 4-1 ahead. Marcus Rashford was the guiltiest of bunch when he fired a shot directly at Nathan Ake with an empty net in fornt of him.
The young Mancunian made amends in injury time though, winning the game for United after some impressive work from Paul Pogba, to see Mourinho’s team just four points outside of the top four. While their current position is still a long way off their aspirations for this season, it is at least a move in the right direction.
Mourinho was confident that his team’s league position would improve by December and that they are making progress. They’ve won three and drawn one of their last four league games. That’s a big improvement on what went before; a loss to West Ham after a home draw with Wolves.
But before fans get too excited they should be mindful of the week of fixtures ahead.
United first travel to Turin to face Juventus, the team that recently won at Old Trafford without even really having to try. Pogba will again face his former club and will be keen to impress. When he performs well, United tend to perform well too. The goal will be to get him to put in a shift from the first whistle, rather than just in the second half.
Four days later, it’s a trip closer to home, with United looking to be the first team to get a victory over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Recent memories at the Etihad are happy ones. Their last visit saw them overturn a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 and deny their rivals claiming the record for the earliest won title. With fireworks on the roof of the stadium, ‘we did it on derby day’ t-shirts in the tunnel ready to be handed out to the players, and a table booked at Wings to celebrate winning the league, United spoiled their party. “Booked tables have you?” Lingard allegedly shouted outside the home dressing room. “We’ll take your f**king tables!”
Even the most optimistic United fan will struggle to imagine a repeat of such a result is possible though, given how well City have been playing, and how regularly United leave themselves exposed at the back.
United have been fortunate to come back and win games thanks to their second half performances, when against better quality opposition their showing in the first 45 minutes would have left games out of sight.
Supporters will already be having nightmares over the prospect of Chris Smalling trying to stop Sergio Aguero or Ashley Young keeping up with the likes of Leroy Sane.
While being able to come back and win games at the death, as United have done against Newcastle and Bournemouth in recent weeks, is testament to a team with a good mentality, a better test is how they fare against the top teams.
United were convincingly beaten by Spurs earlier in the campaign, drew against Chelsea and lost against Juve. It’s hardly a record to brag about.
In the week ahead, Mourinho has the opportunity to show that he is capable of still performing at the highest level. City are unbeaten in the Premier League, having scored 32 goals in 11 games, while Juve are unbeaten in Serie A, with 24 goals in 11 games.
The odds are against them, but Mourinho enjoys the big occasions and will be hoping that his team, by whatever means necessary, get a result.
The late wins may feel good but if United are going to do anything this season they need to perform against the big boys.
They have two great chances to do exactly that in the coming days but they will have to come racing out of the blocks and play well over 90 minutes, rather than just showing up after going a goal or two behind. Does Mourinho still have it in him to inspire such performances? Watch this space.