Having finished sixth last season, Manchester United fans were hoping for some clear improvement in the 2017-18 campaign. Winning two trophies went some way to easing any frustrations over where they finished in the league, especially as José Mourinho clearly sacrificed their position in the table to secure the Europa League. That trophy booked their place in the Champions League so, all in all, it was a decent season.
Despite being outspent by Manchester City for the third consecutive summer, there was the belief that Mourinho could inspire a serious title challenge in his second year in charge.
However, by the first week in December, Pep Guardiola has one hand on the Premier League trophy. The 2-1 derby victory for Manchester City likely ended any hope that United have of being named champions this season.
The 11 point gap isn’t insurmountable, as United have proven previously, making up more ground in less time to win the Premier League in 1996. However, it’s hard to believe that Guardiola’s City will crumble in the same way that Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle did.
While this is obviously disappointing for United fans, especially as it is their bitter rivals who will pip them to the trophy they so desperately crave, the bigger worry now is how long they have before Mourinho’s impending meltdown.
Whatever he manages to do in the first season or two to unite his squad, he loses his magic touch soon enough, usually not too long after winning the league title.
Mourinho showed signs of wobbling a few months ago when he made his strange and unfounded accusation that United fans weren’t supporting Romelu Lukaku.
He followed this up with a very public flirtation with PSG.
However, since then, he has settled down and oversaw an important victory away to Arsenal. Having failed to beat any of the top four teams away from home, this was a step in the right direction. The recent actions in the tunnel following the defeat to City could be the start of his next drama though, with reports suggesting his request for their dressing room to be magnanimous in victory ended in a something akin to a pub brawl.
But despite the derby day disappointment, United are still three points clear of any team below them, boasting a goal difference better by at least 10 than the sides trailing them.
United supporters will always claim that second is nowhere, and they’re right, having being spoilt with success for decades under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Yet this season could be the best campaign they’ve seen since the legendary manager’s retirement. They are already through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, a feat they haven’t managed since David Moyes’ time at the club, and have been given a kind draw for the next round.
Considering they’re facing Sevilla, the fifth-ranked team in Spain at the moment, you would fancy United’s chances of progressing to the quarter-finals.
In terms of the football being produced, it’s the best since Ferguson too. While Mourinho’s tactics for big games will be rightly criticised, United’s performances in other games have been largely good to watch.
Most teams could provide entertainment on Barcelona levels in comparison to the dry football Louis van Gaal employed, or the appalling results Moyes so regularly suffered, yet that doesn’t change that United fans have had plenty of games to cheer about so far this season.
In the 24 games United have played this season, they’ve scored three or more in 10 of them. In Van Gaal’s last season, they scored than many goals in 13 games out of the 59 they played.
In Paul Pogba, United have a player who is genuinely world class and would be the engine of any team. He missed all of United’s big games against Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Spurs, yet when he was present, for the trip to the Emirates, United won 3-1, with him playing a key role.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are among the most exciting players in the world to watch, with the former having just turned 22 and the latter 20. Their best years are clearly a long way in to the future, yet they’re already getting the fans on their feet and producing dazzling football.
David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world and, according to reports in Spain, has no interest in returning to Madrid.
Having things to feel more positive about doesn’t mean that United fans should or are able to feel content with their current position. But they should be mindful of how far they’ve come since the depths they were plunged in to by Moyes.
Three trophies over the past two season, a current much improved position in the league table and Champions League football, guided by a pro in the competition. The fact that Mourinho lifted the trophy with two teams that weren’t, on paper, anywhere near the best in Europe should give some hope too.
Even the giddiest of United fans won’t be expecting to be crowned champions of Europe this season, but they may well go on a good run, which was something they could only dream about in recent years.
But time may well be running out already.
When Mourinho leaves, it may be back to square one again, given how the past three managers have wanted to start everything from scratch when they take charge.
United aren’t there yet, and they’re not close enough either, but they are going in the right direction. But only time will tell whether Mourinho will stick around long enough to return them to the promised land.