Goals are beginning to flow as Man United make progress under Mourinho
While the drop from regular first- and second-place Premier League finishes to the depths of seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth was the clearest indicator of Manchester United's slide following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, a reduction of scoring output was also alarming.
For four consecutive seasons, under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, goals were hard to come by. At one point, fans at the Scoreboard End of Old Trafford didn't see a one from open play for half a season. The team also went 404 minutes without a goal at one point; supporters resorted to chanting "attack, attack, attack" in desperation.
Eight games into 2017-18, things look better, with United having scored 24 times in all competitions and in every match they have played. Compare that to 14 goals managed over the same period under Moyes in 2013-14 and 13 in the campaign that followed, under Van Gaal. In 2015-16, it was 14 goals after eight games and last season, Mourinho's first, delivered 13.
If nothing else, United were consistent in their poor scoring rate, but the lack of production proved costly. Manchester City qualified for the 2015-16 Champions League by virtue of superior goal difference, having scored 22 more times than their neighbours, who managed just 49. Nobody cheers possession stats when they go to a football game, but they do celebrate goals.
Last season, United finished sixth and only scored 54 times; all five clubs above them managed at least 77. Mourinho's pragmatism was understandable but, so far this term, things have been different. It's still early and they have yet to play any of the teams expected to finish in the top four, but the signs are promising.
As Jesse Lingard said in United Review, the match programme, ahead of Wednesday's game with Burton: "This season our mentality has changed. We want to kill teams off early and get the games won." The last week has seen examples of that, with Mourinho's side opening the scoring in the fourth and fifth minute of respective wins against Burton and Everton, in which they scored four goals apiece.
The manager wants points on the board and the ball in the back of the net and, after the frustration of last season, when United drew more league games at home than they won, it can't come soon enough for fans. But will Mourinho play in such attacking fashion against a top team away from home?
Last season at Anfield, the Etihad, the Emirates, White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge (at least initially), United sat deep and allowed their opposition to have possession. They got the draws at Liverpool and City that the tactics warranted, but were taken apart at Arsenal, Tottenham and, especially, Chelsea.
Confidence has increased because better players have come in and there is more familiarity with what the manager wants. And things like this don't happen overnight: It was always Ferguson's dream to have a team good enough to attack Barcelona at Camp Nou, but he had to wait until 1998-99, 12 years after taking charge of United, to unleash those tactics.
Mourinho can be more adventurous and United's goals are being spread around -- nine different players have found the net this season -- but let's not think there was overreliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic at this stage last year: Eight players scored in the first eight games.
The difference is that the players around the central striker, in this case seven-goal Romelu Lukaku, have been more effective. Anthony Martial has been directly involved in a goal every 47 minutes this season. Marcus Rashford has bagged four in the last five games. The maturing pair started together for the first time this season against Burton.
United's defence has also been sound, though Burton's late goal -- the first scored by a lower-division team at Old Trafford since 2011 -- was a minor irritation and blemished an otherwise faultless home record.
The League Cup is not short of detractors and Jose Mourinho's post-match comments about it being a distraction from European competition resonated -- even though he has won the the competition in four of his six seasons in English football -- but the competition offers first-team opportunities.
Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard and Sergio Romero started for the first time this season, while Luke Shaw, whose latest return from injury has been protracted and disjointed, got important minutes and experience, as did Scott McTominay and Joel Pereira.
The League Cup also offers tickets that are easier to access and more affordable for fans, who might otherwise struggle to take a family to a game. On Wednesday my bother paid £10 each for his children to sit in excellent seats in the North Stand; our mother, who is from Old Trafford, paid £18.
They loved it as part of a 54,256 crowd, which was packed with youngsters from Manchester and had a decent atmosphere emanating from J Stand. Burton brought 3,000 of their own supporters to cheer on a modern-day success of a club that punches above its weight in the Championship.
Burton's usual home attendance is 5,000 in a league that has an overall average of 18,000. Managed by Nigel Clough, they don't have a rich benefactor and were a non-league team when they last came to Old Trafford in 2006, but they do have a superb team spirit even though they, like United, made nine changes on Wednesday.
Nobody pretends the competition is a priority, but it has never been so and doesn't need to be to remain worthwhile. Mourinho's starting XI against Burton featured 11 full internationals and the comfortable win, which sets up a fourth-round tie at Swansea, moving United one step closer to retaining the trophy they won after a memorable final vs. Southampton in February.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.