Its been a good weekend for Manchester United. Now that’s a sentence we haven’t said much since 2013. Jose Mourinho’s stress-filled beginning to his tenure at Old Trafford enjoyed some sweet relief this weekend. Actually winning a game brought an end to a run of three consecutive one-all draws, while defeat for Manchester City will have raised a grin or two around Old Trafford (particularly in the home dugout).
A clean sheet for Manchester United, their first in the league since October, will leave Mourinho ecstatic. If he can still be ecstatic anymore, that is. Maybe he will just be a shade less angry, that seems about as good as it can get for Mourinho these days.
So, Manchester United won a game that they really, really had to win. Draws have blighted their season to date, but they managed to avoid their usual late conceding fate to hold on for a victory. The performance, retrospectively, will be looked on as a good one. Performances for United have not always been poor, many have been good, but results have seldom matched.
An overwhelmingly positive weekend should not be brushed aside for Mourinho, defeat could have really spelled the end to a realistic top four challenge.
Failures for Manchester City and Liverpool will have cheered up Manchester United’s fans as much as anything else. Cutting the gap to fourth placed City to six points, Mourinho’s side are within touching distance. They could, however unlikely it may be, be level on points with their Manchester rivals by the time we are tucking into turkey on Christmas day. That is how significant this result was.
Manchester United should ignore the victories for Chelsea and Arsenal. The Blues’ position at the summit of the Premier League is out of reach for the Red Devils at this stage and will remain so (barring a bizarre second half of the season). Their aim from here on in is to qualify for the Champions League, it’s that simple. Whether they opt to hedge their bets with a lengthy push for the Europa League or not, the top four is still the goal domestically.
Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan – who is ruled out for a couple of games – were excellent against Tottenham. That, as much as the result, could prove to be the turning point. Fitting the club’s two most creative players into the side, harmoniously functioning alongside one another, was a potential dilemma for Mourinho. The quality Manchester United possess in the final third could yet see them produce a long unbeaten run, which is why the top four is well within their realm.
The whole feeling around the club would have been different had this game gone the same way as the matches with Arsenal, Everton and West Ham. Resisting persistent Spurs pressure in the second half, Manchester United kept a rare Premier League clean sheet and grasped three vital points. One late goal through a deflected shot or a Harry Kane finish would have been a knife to the heart of United’s campaign. Hope can now freely return to Old Trafford and, without the exaggerated title ambitions, they should be able to play with freedom.
Mourinho’s task now is to keep his side relaxed. Avoid controversy, limit the natural pressure they are under and allow his immensely gifted squad to prove their worth. Mourinho has found a blueprint that balances the side, he must now resist the urge to tinker. This could be his chance to remember how to enjoy football.