Man United poised for strong 2018 if they can finish 2017 on a high note
With a minute left at Leicester on Saturday night, things didn't look so bad for Manchester United. The largest away section in the Premier League had been rocking with raffish noise, the evening kickoff allowing fans the opportunity of plenty of festive time prematch in Leicester's pubs.
Juan Mata, one of several United players out of contract in six months (though the club have an option to trigger an extension), had scored two excellent goals against the 2016 champions, who'd been reduced to 10 men. Mata hadn't scored or assisted enough before December, but three assists and two goals this month is more than respectable. He's playing well.
United had also created a load of chances, with Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard linking, creating, always making runs, finding space and troubling Leicester's defenders.
At the half-way point in the Premier League, the team was on course to win 14 of their 19 matches. That's better than in seasons where United have won the league.
The Reds should have put Leicester out of sight, just as they did at Old Trafford in September. Instead, for the second time in four days, the home team scored a goal in time added on. Bristol City knocked United out of the Carabao Cup, Leicester knocked the stuffing from a profligate team who missed far too many of those chances. Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were all culpable in front of goal. Conceding late goals are very un-Mourinho like and Basel got a very late winner last month too. United were finishing games strongly earlier in the season, now they're conceding as the clock ticks down.
Still, Leicester away was an exciting game. Not quite the 3-5 at Leicester of 2014, but another entertaining game of football, not that United fans may have chosen the word "exciting" at the end for it felt like a defeat. United have been involved in several entertaining games recently -- against Newcastle, Arsenal, Watford and Leicester. The entertainment is there more often than not, it's better than what we were watching under Louis van Gaal, though when you concede goals in time added in consecutive matches, it's a knockout. And United have had three bad knockouts in December, the first being that derby defeat.
This is the best United team since Sir Alex Ferguson departed four and a half years ago, but it can't land a punch on Manchester City. There's still a hangover from City's victory a few weeks ago and still many concerns about the way United are playing. There are many positives, too -- as there should be for a team that's second in a tough league. But overall, too many players, like the team, lack consistency and cohesion to look like title challengers.
Let's not gloss over the negatives. The defence doesn't concede many goals, but still manages to look unsettled and suffers many injuries. Leicester's opener was farcical -- from a counter attack, something for which they've been renowned for at least three years. The end of the game was even worse, with the injured Chris Smalling playing central defence. Little wonder Mourinho was livid. At least he'll have plenty of time to get his message across over Christmas -- United's players are training on Christmas Day.
United's best sides were usually built on a solid back two, yet while one attacker (Lukaku), one midfielder (Nemanja Matic) and a goalkeeper (David De Gea) have started all 19 Premier League games, no central defender has featured in more than 14. They don't wish to be injured and Phil Jones had a great run at the start of the season, but it's still frustrating. Eric Bailly's injuries mean his absence is felt. Luke Shaw, the most expensive teenage footballer when he signed in 2014, has started one league game. United's last clean sheet away in the league was at Liverpool in October.
United's attack should be immense and it sometimes is, but sometimes is not often enough. The midfield is far from complete, though Matic has been a good buy.
Paul Pogba is the team's best player, but he has to mature, be less emotional and more calm. He was United's captain against Leicester yet, not for the first time, he tried wildly ambitious shots. United needed organisation late on when Smalling was injured. It was lacking.
Despite spending a fortune since Mourinho arrived, this United team don't look close to their best, yet it's with the best that United will join in the last 16 of the Champions League.
United have two home games to finish off what has not been a bad year, two winnable matches. First up is Burnley, who have a surprisingly good away record with two defeats on the road. Burnley are hard to break down, concede few and beat Chelsea and Everton while drawing with Liverpool and Spurs.
Then it's Southampton, who played so well in the EFL final in February, as the year's final opponents. They've slipped to 13th and haven't won any of their last six games.
United won the Carabao Cup and the Europa League in 2017. It's second-tier stuff, but it's still significant as United try to climb back towards the top. Most hope that ascent will continue under Mourinho, who has undoubtedly made improvements. He doesn't always look like he's enjoying being the manager at one of the biggest clubs in the world and that can frustrate fans, but he is genuinely popular. He's not loved yet, but he's respected.
He'll always be compared to Pep Guardiola, and at the moment United are falling farther behind, looking like a team with the blues rather than one which can catch the Blues. A 13-point gap appears insurmountable. And that's the big cloud which keeps raining on Manchester United as they go into the new year, this most testing time in the football season which has so far revealed the shortcomings in this United squad.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.