23rd November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Lying sixth in the table with 19 points from 12 games, nine points off league leaders Chelsea and six behind fourth-placed Arsenal, it's hardly been an ideal start to the season for Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.
The Red Devils are currently five points and one league position worse off than they were at this stage of the previous campaign under the much maligned, and since departed, Louis van Gaal.
With executive vice chairman Ed Woodward confirming last week that if United are to miss out on Champions League qualification again this term, they stand to lose as much as £20 million from their lucrative Adidas sponsorship deal.
So the pressure is very much on Mourinho to turns things around.
But, despite recent results, the Portuguese coach has got the Old Trafford outfit moving in the right direction.
The former Chelsea boss was evidently disappointed to have thrown away a lead against Arsenal on Saturday, drawing a game that they had largely controlled, and he even expressed his frustration at referee Andre Marriner for failing to award the home side a penalty after Nacho Monreal appeared to have hauled down Antonio Valencia inside the box.
From a winning position, they managed to squander what would have been a very useful two points, as substitute Olivier Giroud's last-gasp header cancelled out Juan Mata's 68th minute goal.
And what would have stung even more for Mourinho is that the Gunners' 89th minute strike was eminently avoidable; had Marcus Rashford sufficiently challenged Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to prevent the cross which led to the game-tying header or had left-back Daley Blind moved over to help the teenager shut down the Arsenal man then United would have been celebrating a morale-boosting win.
But despite the costly momentary lapse, there were plenty of positives to be taken from the 1-1 draw. Arsene Wenger's men had been flying high in recent weeks, with many observers feeling that this could be the year they end their 12-season title drought. At Old Trafford, the Gunners were below par to say the least, but United deserve credit for the way they dominated their opponents for most of the game.
The home side mustered 12 shots with five hitting the target. Petr Cech was forced to make a couple of fine saves to deny Mata and Anthony Martial towards the end of the first half, and had Marcos Rojo found the target when meeting a superb Blind cross six yards out, the result would have been beyond doubt. Instead, Arsenal rescued a point with their only effort on target in the entire match.
United have been even more dominant in recent home fixtures against Stoke City and Burnley, but have fallen to disappointing draws in both.
Against the Clarets, Mourinho's side racked up 37 shots at goal, hit the post and the crossbar, but came up against an inspired Tom Heaton a former United player in goal, who pulled off save after spectacular save to ensure the game ended goalless.
United's finishing has been profligate at times this season and that is something that Mourinho will need to address. But their general play has shown marked improvement of late, and even more so when compared with the drab, uber-cautious style offered up under van Gaal.
Mournho's United trail van Gaal's 2015-16 side by many metrics, with two fewer wins than at the same stage last season (five compared to seven), six more goals conceded (14 compared to eight) and the same amount of goals scored (17).
But in terms of chances created, van Gaal's side mustered a total of 312 scoring opportunities through the entire 38-game campaign, while this season United have already conjured 149 chances, putting them on course to finish the season with a total of 472 chances created.
And despite van Gaal's emphasis on cautious possession, Mourinho's side have enjoyed an almost identical share of the ball so far this term, averaging 54 percent of possession to last year's 55 percent, while maintaining a higher pass completion rate (86 percent to 83 percent).
Mourinho, as you'd perhaps expect, has added a degree of tenacity, with the Red Devils upping their success rate in one-on-one duels to 49 percent from last season's 44 percent.
The Portuguese tactician appears to be closing in on discovering the best formation and line-up at Old Trafford too. Starting the season with a 4-2-3-1 shape, Mourinho shuffled around the likes of Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney in the attacking midfield positions behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while £89 million summer signing Paul Pogba was stifled by the added defensive responsibility of playing in a double pivot.
But a recent switch to 4-3-3 has seen an uptick in the level of performances of many stars, although results are yet to follow suit.
The midfield trio on display against Arsenal of Pogba, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera seems to provide the best balance in the middle of the field, with the 23-year-old former Juventus star afforded more freedom to move forward and influence attacking moves.
Mata, who was thought to be on his way out of the club when Mourinho was hired, due to the fact that the manager had sold the Spaniard when in charge of Chelsea, has now become a key player for Mourinho.
With Rooney's powers fading, his removal from the side has allowed for the formation shift, and Ander Herrera's stellar performances appear to have consigned Marouane Fellaini to the substitutes' bench.
Despite these positives, there is still reason for concern for United fans. Mkhitaryan's continued unexplained absence is a worry, as the most creative player in the Bundesliga last season has all the attributes to be a star in the Premier League, but Mourinho seems reluctant to give him a chance.
And the side's wasteful finishing is an issue that some may write off as bad luck, but it has led to the concession of points this season. In a results oriented business such as football, winning and getting points on the board is vital; it's hard to do that without scoring goals.
Maybe further reinforcements will be sought in the January transfer window and Ibrahimovic, who scored a brace in his last outing against Swansea City but missed the Arsenal game through suspension, will find his shooting boots again.
But, even with the lower than expected league position and constant doom-and-gloom reports emanating from Old Trafford, progress is being made by Mourinho and Manchester United this season.
Mourinho and Man Utd are Making Progress, Despite Disappointing Results
23rd November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.