Pep sets standard Mourinho must follow as United plot route back to top
Manchester United have not done a lot wrong this season but you wouldn't know it looking at the Premier League table.
One of the preseason favourites are 11 points adrift in the title race. It was briefly 14 at the weekend, before Jose Mourinho's team cut the deficit with a hard-fought 2-1 win at West Brom on Sunday.
Jesse Lingard, scorer of the second goal at The Hawthorns, said afterwards that in other seasons United's form -- which has seen them win seven of their last nine league games -- would be enough to sit top.
He's not wrong: United have 41 points after 18 games and in five of the last 10 seasons they would be top. In all the others the gap to the leaders would be no more than five points. It is their best start to a campaign since 2012-13, when they were crowned champions in Sir Alex Ferguson's last season. They are 12 points better off than they were at the same stage of the 2015-16 season -- Louis van Gaal's last in charge -- and eight points better off than after 18 games of last season.
It is clear United under Mourinho have made progress. Yet, it does not look like it will be enough to win a first championship for five years. You can argue that it is not Mourinho's failing. That, simply put, he has built a very good team which happens to be competing against a better one. Manchester City's class of 2017-18 are already being talking about as one of the Premier League's best. They have set a new mark for consecutive wins and remain on course to break records for points and goals.
More significantly, though, they could yet redefine what is expected of a title-winning team. Mourinho should recognise the signs better than most. There was a time when a team with title aspirations would aim to win their home games and draw away, safe in the knowledge that, more often than not, they would be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. Ferguson's dominant United team of the 1990s, which won the title in seven of the first nine Premier League campaigns, raised the bar.
Then, in 2004, Mourinho arrived. United won the title in 2003 with 83 points, having won 25 of their 38 games. But when Mourinho's Chelsea won it in 2005, they set a new standard. Chelsea's team of 2004-05 -- Mourinho's first season at Stamford Bridge -- won 29 of their 38 games and won the Premier League with 95 points.
They were 12 points clear of second-placed Arsenal, who finished with 83, the same total that was enough for United to win the title just two years earlier. Chelsea retained the trophy in 2005-06 with 29 wins and 91 points. United finished second, again with 83 points. What had once been good enough was not any more.
Gary Neville later admitted Chelsea's two titles under Mourinho had forced Ferguson into a rethink.
"Mourinho redefined how Sir Alex, and maybe us as a team, thought of a title," he said.
"We always started pretty slowly, knowing full well even if we were seven or eight points behind come Christmas, we could always catch up. We'd get stronger as the season went on.
"But in those two Jose Mourinho years they went hard from the start and they never came back. It just meant that everyone had to refocus how you thought about a title -- losing hardly any games, conceding very few goals, difficult to beat."
When United won the title again in 2007, they did it with 28 wins and 89 points. Chelsea finished second with 24 wins and, again, 83 points.
Mourinho insisted in the news conference room at The Hawthorns on Sunday that he is not ready to give up on this season's title and "go on holidays".
He will know, however, that it is unlikely Pep Guardiola's team will slip up to such a degree that might give the chasing pack more than just a faint hope. It is more likely that this season marks a moving of the goalposts. We won't know for sure until the sample size is bigger but all the signs are there.
Just like Mourinho set a new bar for Ferguson more than a decade ago, Guardiola appears to be doing the same thing to Mourinho.
Ferguson found a way to match the new standard. Mourinho's challenge is to do the same.
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.