Has the style of football improved?
José Mourinho’s declaration that he would be aggressive and play front-foot football is largely the story of his opening seven games. There have been some stodgy and low days – the 3-1 defeat at Watford chief among them – but in the main United are not the dull, one-paced outfit coached by Louis van Gaal.
United attacked throughout the 1-1 draw with Stoke City on Sunday – which Mourinho hailed as their finest display yet under his charge, which it is difficult to argue with despite two dropped points – and were quick and slick in pass and movement, as they had been when beating Leicester City 4-1 the previous weekend.
As Ander Herrera said: “We cannot believe we did not win this game. We played even better than against Leicester as we created maybe 10 or 11 chances in front of their keeper. He was their best player and that says everything. Our fans can be proud as we did everything and tried to win.”
Is he doing better than Louis van Gaal?
United are sixth and have 13 points. A year ago they were second with 16 points. The real answer to whether this matters will come only as the season reaches its reckoning point but given that Mourinho is only seven league matches into his United career while Van Gaal’s count 12 months ago was 45, the Portuguese deserves some slack in this regard. Also, Mourinho’s United have scored once more – 13 – than Van Gaal’s at the corresponding juncture, though the eight conceded is three higher.
Rewind two years to when Van Gaal had overseen seven games and United were two points worse off with 11, and in fourth place. Thirteen goals had also been scored while 11 were conceded. The Premier League of two years ago was also not as competitive as this term’s, so Mourinho’s performance of two points more suggests material improvement.
How is the spirit inside the squad?
A test of this came when United lost three times in a row – twice in the league, including the first derby of the season, and Mourinho criticised his players. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Eric Bailly were all pointed at. Apart from Mkhitaryan, all are probable starters in the manager’s first XI, so he did not single out soft targets. Leaving aside whether accepting negative public discourse from the manager is part of being an elite footballer, Mourinho’s move did not backfire as United bounced back to win three matches consecutively and are now unbeaten in four.
Where are we with Wayne Rooney?
For some (though not quite all) United supporters, the 30-year-old is a perennial sore in the side, the man dropped by Sir Alex Ferguson in his final season and who should have left the club then. That was more than three years ago. Van Gaal left him out once on form for the 2-0 defeat at Stoke last Boxing Day but reinstated him instantly for the following outing against Chelsea. Mourinho has now excluded Rooney from the past two league matches and the performances against Leicester and Stoke were better than they had previously been. This can only make the manager popular among the many Rooney naysayers in the Old Trafford faithful.
How have the new arrivals done?
Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are clear successes. The former has slotted smoothly into Mourinho’s defence at centre-back and could end the season as the find of the summer window.
There is even a comparison with one of United’s recent best in the position. “Nemanja [Vidic] was one of those defenders who was very aggressive, very dominant and took no nonsense,” Chris Smalling said. “Eric plays the same way. He can go through a tackle and he doesn’t take risks. You can see the similarities there and I expect Eric to have many good years here.”
Ibrahimovic, who turned 35 on Monday, has four goals in seven league games, is as hungry as ever and is showing what a complete striker looks like. Against Stoke, the Swede offered flicks and spins, dropped deep to knit play, and was in his usual de facto captain mode.
Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have, to differing degrees, been less successful. It seems odd that Mourinho can find no starting berth for the Armenian considering he is the Bundesliga player of the year and has the quick, creative game the manager wants. Meanwhile, Pogba is in the starting side and is, gradually, beginning to impress. But he spurned a late chance to head a winner against Stoke amid other glaring misses. It would not be a surprise, though, if Pogba becomes a dominant United player.