Life is hard at Manchester United.
It’s hard, first and foremost, because Manchester City are becoming one of the genuine greats not just of the English game but of world football’s illustrious history.
It’s hard, too, because United’s point haul so far would often be good enough for top spot, and would always have left them in the title hunt at this stage of every Premier League season.
It’s hard because of the team’s reliance on players like Paul Pogba, whose injury showed that United are not the same team without him, and whose suspension came at the absolute worst time. And it’s hard because Jose Mourinho makes it hard; watching United in big games is like wading through a sea of cold porridge, as the defensive stodge their serve up can’t be fun to play in let alone watch.
As we move into 2018, Manchester United should be able to look back on 2017 as a year of progress, however. They have won two trophies, and although success in the Europa League and EFL Cup would hardly have been heralded as triumphs for the Manchester United sides of old, they did represent important points on a journey back to the top – and one that would have surely seemed closer to completion had City not stormed so far into the lead.
That should mean that 2018 isn’t all doom and gloom at Old Trafford, though perhaps Jose Mourinho’s greatest achievement so far this season could be in making it seem as though it is, from the outside looking in, at least.
That’s because it would be a mistake of epic proportions to underestimate Manchester United now.
They won’t win the league barring a Devon Loch style collapse from their neighbours, but there are still two competitions left which could see United revive themselves in some style. The FA Cup could represent a distraction from Premier League mundanity come the spring, whilst it shouldn’t be forgotten that United topped their Champions League group with relative ease and with the second best defensive record in the competition. Over two legs, Jose Mourinho’s side have the ability to beat any team in the competition, and they even seem set up to maximise their chances in that particular competition. Underestimating United in Europe could prove fatal to any team in the competition, and if City are the favourites, their league position could be what lures them into that false sense of security.
On the transfer front, however, things are a little less clear. United are in need of some new faces, but their transfer record over the last few years has been called into question of late – given the money spent since the start of the Louis van Gaal reign, United’s entire starting back five against City at the start of the December was made up of players from the Ferguson era, whilst three more of the starting XI came through the ranks under Ferguson, though Pogba was sold and bought back.
That means that even if United do buy in January, there’s no guarantee that it’ll work. You do get the feeling, though, that a centre-back will be on Jose Mourinho’s shopping list, given Eric Bailly’s injury. And you’d also like to think that a central midfielder who can offset some of the creativity lost to the Red Devils when Paul Pogba isn’t on the pitch will be important, too. Then there’s the Henrikh Mkhitaryan situation: if the Armenian isn’t firing on all cylinders and United are looking to get rid of him, he’ll need replacing.
Things aren’t rosy at Old Trafford, but neither are they as bad as some are making it seem – Mourinho included. 2018 could still be a great year for the club as they should still be regarded as one of the favourites for the Champions League and you can’t forget that they’re in second place and seven points clear of Liverpool in fourth.
Success isn’t too far away, but United will still have to hope that Manchester City are beatable.