Manchester United jury is still out on Jose Mourinho despite real progress
Manchester United secured second place in the Premier League on Thursday evening with an uninspiring 0-0 draw against West Ham.
Truth be told, United's league campaign finished on the first weekend of April when they beat rivals Manchester City to prevent them from entering the history books by winning the title earlier than any other club. They also denied their rival supporters from having the ultimate bragging rights of winning the league against them.
United may have beaten Arsenal and Bournemouth since then, but once the inevitable was confirmed, with City claiming the title the following weekend, Jose Mourinho's attentions have solely been on the FA Cup.
This is a similar story to the manager's first season in charge. After United reached the Europa League semifinal, Mourinho made the brave, and ultimately correct, decision to prioritise winning a trophy to secure Champions League football, rather than going for top four.
Yet if this gamble didn't pay off, it would have been absolutely disastrous for Mourinho. It would have meant that Louis van Gaal had been more successful and that David Moyes wasn't far behind him.
Sir Alex Ferguson had seasons that hung in the balance too, the greatest of those coming in the historic Treble winning campaign of 1998-99. He was an injury-time Dennis Bergkamp penalty away from being knocked out of the FA Cup, a point and two goals away from losing the league title and saw Bayern Munich hit the woodwork twice in the Champions League final before the two winning injury-time goals.
However, the difference between Ferguson's fine margins and Mourinho's are that the former won the two major trophies as well as the league when he fell just on the right side of the line, while the latter won the League Cup and the Europa League, and this season he's banking on the FA Cup.
Still, United are in a better position this season than they were last. Champions League football has already been secured and only one team has been more successful than them over the course of the league season. If United win the FA Cup, it doesn't make or break the campaign in same way the Europa League did last year, but silverware is still vitally important and means those who have been criticising the club and manager throughout 2017-18 have limited weight to support their argument.
If United add that trophy to a second-placed finish in the league, it will represent a fairly successful season, but more importantly, progress. Social media is full of United fans claiming it's unacceptable for United to settle for this current situation, but that is a spoilt mentality.
The club never had any birthright to win the league and that was even when they had the greatest manager this country has ever seen in charge. At this stage, following the biggest transition we have likely ever seen in European football, and likely will ever see again, United are on the road to recovery.
While the football isn't what fans want, with some presumably unaware of the style Mourinho has employed throughout his career when they were desperate for him to be appointed, progress is being made. United have a swing of 32 points on Chelsea since last season, 21 on Tottenham Hotspur, 13 on Liverpool and 24 on Arsenal.
In the four previous campaigns since Ferguson's retirement, United's highest finish has been fourth, with fifth-, sixth- and seventh-placed finishes in the other years. United are now second, that's progress.
United have beaten City, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal this season. That's progress.
Still, that is the positive take on Mourinho's time at the club, but the more negative stance is to look at the gulf between City and United.
On one hand, you look at City and see that their four best players from this season were already at the club when Pep Guardiola took charge. They have outspent every team in the league in four of the past five seasons. If City weren't winning the title this season, something would have gone horribly wrong at the Etihad.
Yet the football they have played and the total dominance they've enjoyed, without a challenge from United or any other club, has rightly frustrated the Old Trafford faithful. It's understandable that United are second to City right now, but to be 19 points behind is unacceptable.
United may well have beaten all the top clubs but they've lost to too many of the bottom clubs. All three of the newly promoted sides have claimed victories over United this season and they have dropped five points against the three teams that are going down.
If fans were going to choose one over the other, of course they'd prefer the wins against the best teams and their rivals, but it shouldn't be a choice. There's no way that the likes of Stoke or West Brom should have taken points off United.
However, that is probably an easier fix than being tactically outsmarted or outplayed by the managers and teams you're competing against for the title. Had United not endured a disastrous spell during December, this season could have been very different, and certainly more respectable.
Some supporters have made up their mind on Mourinho and want him out. Others have given him their full backing after recognising the mammoth job he had on his hands. But for many the jury is still out.
The fans should be wary of always talking about next season, as their rivals Liverpool have for almost three decades, but 2018-19 will surely be the one when the questions being asked of Mourinho are answered, one way or the other. He must do better. The players must improve. The right signings must be made. But if supporters are turning their noses up at finishing second and potentially winning the FA Cup, maybe football post-Ferguson isn't for them.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.