Manchester United's progress is positive but more is needed
Sunday's 2-1 victory over Arsenal was somewhat humdrum, but did ensure Manchester United completed a Premier League double -- wins at home and away in the same season -- over Arsenal. Jose Mourinho's side have also taken four points off Liverpool this season, as well as winning at Manchester City, defeating Spurs and Chelsea at home and knocking Tottenham out of the FA Cup at their temporary Wembley home.
United are second in the league and heading for a total in excess of 80 points for the first time since the club's last title win in 2012-13. If they win their last three games not only will it prevent Man City from being champions by a record margin -- the 18-point mark is held by United's 1999-2000 team -- but the final tally of 86 would also have been enough to win the league 10 times since the 20-team era began in 1995-96.
United won the league that season with 82 points, then clinched with just 75 points a year later. In 2014, Arsene Wenger, who received two fabulous ovations in his final game as Arsenal manager at Old Trafford on Sunday, said it takes between 82-86 points to be champions.
United have clinched a Champions League place, are in the FA Cup final and have been involved in numerous exciting games this season, while Mourinho is happy at the club and largely popular with fans. He is determined and has told his players he has no interest in being their friend. Instead, his priority is to get them to ply more consistently; not only does he not want another season where the league was all but over by the autumn, he can't really afford one.
There is significantly more to do before this team can be considered among United's greats. That was clear at the start of the season when they were outclassed by Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup final and remains true, as the limp surrender to Sevilla in Europe showed. Beyond those low points plenty of fans, players, former players and pundits want to see more attractive football.
"There's an issue with the pace that the team move the ball around," former United winger Lee Sharpe told ESPN. "When we played, we were told that the ball goes down one side of the pitch and if it doesn't come off then it goes down the other. We'd spread the pitch to make it big. We'd move defences and midfields from side to side and at some point someone was going to jump out and try to win the ball, which then created a gap behind them to exploit.
"We played quickly, but the current team makes a slower transition from defence to attack. Now, when United's midfielders get the ball, they're taking one, two, three or four touches before there's a pass on. Look at City and Liverpool and you see more one and two touches, more players being closer together as if they were playing in boxes which makes for speed. United's is a slower, narrower game that doesn't trouble enough teams.
"Too many teams lower down the league have dealt with United and even beaten them," Sharpe continues. "They've had time to organise, to retreat to two banks of four. They also know a lot more about United and are better prepared. Yet nobody can deal with City and Liverpool when they're at full tilt. I hope United play at a higher tempo and further up the field next season because all the rival teams are going to spend in the summer to improve."
Sharpe, a star of United's early 1990s sides and scorer of 36 goals in 263 appearances for the club, believes United already have suitable players to improve.
"The players are good enough and fast enough," says Sharpe. "[Marcus] Rashford, [Anthony] Martial and [Alexis] Sanchez are good enough to scare the life out of people, though I thought Sanchez would be hunting down players and bring that pace to United's game that has been lacking, like Carlos Tevez did.
"There's [Romelu] Lukaku to score goals, but he doesn't get enough service. He's often 25 yards from goal and that's not his strength. He's best when coming onto the ball and finishing but, even when United get to the penalty box, there are too many backwards and sideways passes."
A defeat to West Brom aside, United's three-man midfield of Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera has been effective in recent weeks.
"Matic is different class; he sniffs out trouble, he never gives the ball away and generally looks forward with his first pass," says Sharpe. "He's cool under pressure; he's big, strong, aggressive. Matic is good enough to be the holding midfielder. Pogba attacks, but he must have some responsibility when the ball is going towards his own goal. That's what hasn't impressed his manager. Rashford or Martial don't have to track back into their own six yard box, but the three midfielders in a 4-3-3 do."
Sharpe is a fan of Ander Herrera but would rather see Juan Mata play: "Herrera gets around the park and sticks his foot in a bit, but Mata is cleverer and when you're playing against teams who bank up against you on the edge of their own box, you need someone clever like Mata who can see a pass or pick out a cross."
Having started out at left-back, Sharpe made his name as an exciting winger. United's current full-backs, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, have gone in the opposite direction.
"If you're going to play 4-3-3 and use your full-backs to attack, then they have to have licence to go forward," says Sharpe. "Valencia needs to be more aggressive going forward. He goes so far and then passes sideways. He should be down near the penalty box, with the fans up cheering and the opponents on the back foot. He should be thinking I'm going to run at you all day long so you'd better be on your toes. Valencia and Young know how to get forward, know how to cross, but are they being instructed to be cautious, to get back and defend? That's what it looks like."
Sharpe is broadly positive about United and Mourinho but, like many a United follower, he's looking for greater speed of play and a more attacking mindset next season.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.