Is Top 4 Out Of Reach For Manchester United This Season?
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on December 3, 2016
When the 2016/17 season started and it was announced that Jose Mourinho would be Manchester United manager, the news was met with mixed emotions. One thought was that Mourinho would bring a title-winning mentality back to Old Trafford and the other was that his appointment was completely against the club’s policy and its ideals, nevertheless the Portuguese became the manager succeeding the Dutchman Louis Van Gaal who had just a few months back won United the FA Cup to give the club its first trophy since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The summer transfer window was an exciting time for Manchester United fans all over the world, big names coming to Old Trafford, the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who arrived on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, voted the players’ player of the year in his previous season at Borussia Dortmund , arrived at the club at a relatively bargain price of 26.3 million pounds. From La Liga, young Ivorian Eric Bailly was signed for £32 million from Villareal. The highlight of the transfer window though was the world-record signing of Paul Pogba for a fee of £89 million pounds, which saw the Frenchman make a return to the club where he started his career and took his baby steps in football.
The season took off well for the Red Devils as they first won the Community shield against last season’s surprise champions Leicester City. The first three fixtures United won and it seemed as though the club was heading in the right direction, but soon after they hit a three-game losing run which included a 2-1 loss to rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford. Their form has been inconsistent since then and this has consequently led to them being 6th in the league table after 13 match-weeks. The team has been doing well enough in cup competitions and Mourinho’s earliest chance at silverware this season might be the league cup final, should the Red Devils progress from the two-legged semifinal against a dogged Hull City side who will give it their all to prevent the Red Devils from qualifying.
In his first presser as United manager, Mourinho spoke about how he wanted this team to do well in all competitions and boldly claimed that the Red Devils were looking to “win everything”. The progress in cup competitions has been going alright for United but the league is the real concern for the Manchester United manager, inconsistent form in the league, unnecessary rotation, fielding weaker teams in the league and not turning good performances into results has been a problem for United this season, all these factors beg the question that every United fan seems to be thinking about, is the top four out of reach for Manchester United?
As it stands, the Red Devils sit eight points away from the top four and face a real battle to close the gap between their rivals and themselves. One of the biggest hindrances of the season so far for United has been the amount of games they’ve managed to draw. Almost every fixture after an excellent Europa League outing has resulted in United drawing the very next premier league game, out of their 13 games so far, they’ve lost three, won five and drawn five, that’s ten points dropped in those drawn games, ten points that could’ve gone a long way in their quest for the title earlier, but now a top four finish itself looks like a real struggle for the 20 time premier league champions.
There are two choices here for Mourinho and both are equally challenging to pursue if he wants to ensure a successful premier league campaign and a good season in general.
The first option being, prioritising the Europa League. Going all the way in this competition is easier said than done. The toll it takes on the players is just as much mental as it is physical. The long flights and the travels to Eastern European countries and travelling back to England is long hours and this meddles with the preparation period for Premier League fixtures, as Europa league games are on Thursday nights whereas the Premier league games kick off on Sundays, this makes the scheduling a huge problem for teams without the squad depth to face the pressures of the Europa League.
In terms of squad depth, United have enough across all departments on the field. The Europa League campaign has been relatively comfortable for the Red Devils having lost twice and won thrice, with qualification all but guaranteed unless they slip up against Zorya Luhansk in Ukraine, Jose has fielded strong sides for Europa League games, but even he might consider resting his star players and giving the fringe players of the squad a chance. Even after qualifying from the tiring group stage fixtures, there are many more rounds before United can reach the final, including some tougher opponents who drop down from the Champions league group stages to compete in the round of 32 of the Europa League.
Winning the Europa League would give United a direct entry into next year’s champions league campaign, although it isn’t what the Red Devils would’ve hoped for, it is what they would have to contend with and give it a better go at the league title next year, when the team would be more in sync, much more prepared and by then, Mourinho will have well and truly made the squad his own.
Some might argue that United can balance both the Europa League and the league, citing the examples of how Tottenham Hotspur went on to the round of 16 and got knocked out by Dortmund and how Chelsea in the 2012/13 season eventually managed to clinch the trophy itself. In Tottenham’s case, they faced relatively easier teams in their progress throughout the competition and when a big team like Dortmund came around, they got swept aside with ease by the Germans. In Chelsea’s case, the Blues got through to the final after beating the likes of Rubin Kazan, FC Basel and in the final, they faced Jorge Jesus’ SL Benfica and defeated them with a 2-1 scoreline. However, what has to be considered is that these two teams went to great lengths to get their victories, going to countries like Greece, Czech Republic, and Hungary is no easy task and United might have to pull off something similar if they are to make the Europa League their primary objective.
Now, the second option being to forget about the Europa League and put in all the hard work in the Premier League. If the Europa League is out of the way, Mourinho can concentrate all his focus on the league and field strong teams week in week out. If Jose chooses to go this way, getting results will be essential if United are to get anywhere close to the top four in the coming weeks of the season, they will also need some very good luck and one of top four sides to slip up and let their grip on the top four loose for any other team to take advantage.
There is a risk to this as well, probably just as much as focusing primarily on the Europa League. This season has proven to be more competitive among the big guns of the league more than ever, with the arrival of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, these two managers have brought with them a different tactic to the premier league, a different style. Both teams are flourishing in the top four along with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool who are quite possibly the most dangerous team attacking wise and also a top four ever present in the form of Arsenal, Arsene Wenger will be hoping to end his final season at the Emirates with a flourish.
What will be even important for United is to find the right consistency in results as well as performances. Mourinho has been accused of fielding weaker teams in the league and the accusation may be right up to a certain extent. Whenever some players have done well in the Europa League, Jose has opted to rotate and field a different team and in some cases, a weaker team even.
Ideally, United should be using the Europa League to play their fringe players and give them match time and rest important players for the big games in the premier league, but Jose seems to be playing the big names and strong teams in the Europa League, that will have to change if Mourinho has even the slightest intention of focusing on all his competitions.
The month of December is an opportunity for United to gain maximum points and also win pretty much every game as they come up against the likes Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, they kick off the month’s action with a tough trip to Goodison Park to face Ronald Koeman’s Everton, this match being one of two tougher games for the Red Devils this month, the other being a visit from Tottenham Hotspur on the 11th of December.
So, are United out of the top four race? Mathematically it is still possible, anything is possible, this is the premier league we’re talking about, although Jose Mourinho will be hoping after all the drama has happened and the dust has settled, his team will be up there competing with the rest, right where they belong. Only United can dictate how the rest of their season goes, will it be a pursuit of the Europa League? Will it be an all-out attempt at the top four and the league itself? Or will it be a bold attempt to “win it all” as Jose earlier intended to? Only time will tell.