These are crazy times we are living in. Last night Manchester United virtually fielded a full strength side against their City rivals in the oft-maligned EFL Cup. This is unheard of, but in truth they had to, following a poor (expectation-wise) start to the season, a heavy beating from Chelsea and some inadvisable words by Jose Mourinho on life in Manchester.
This win will give Mourinho some breathing space from the relentless pounding he has taken in recent days from the press. Doubts have arisen over his suitability as manager of Manchester United, questions have been asked about his management style and to top it all off, humiliatingly, his emotional well-being has been placed under scrutiny. Meanwhile, over at the Emirates I can think of one man who is guaranteed a daily chuckle on turning to the back pages at breakfast—but Arsene Wenger is far too dignified a man to make any bones about it. Over the years Mourinho has made more enemies than most in football and it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that the focus on him is, in part, self-inflicted.
But United won, beating their City rivals in the process and one look at the fixture list will provide a little respite too, the games will come thick and fast but there are none for the remainder of the year that will give Mourinho palpitations. So long as they can avoid shooting themselves in the foot they can begin to build on that mythical ‘springboard’ that anyone associated with United increasingly talk about these days. The problem with springboards is that sometimes you go up and often you come straight back down again.
The expectations at Manchester United today are considerably lower than they were at the beginning of the season. After winning their first three on the spin there were certainly unspoken title aspirations however one look at the odds available today finds them sixth favorites at odds of around 20-1. Whilst in no way impossible (United do have the personnel if they find a way of making it click), it is unlikely that United will be looking up at the stars again anytime soon.
So, realistically, what do they need to do to consider this season a success given where they are now, and use as a springboard for the next? Well, top 4 is the minimum requirement and within reach, anything less could create a despondency that might prove difficult to lift over the longer term never mind the practical issues surrounding reduced revenue and attracting top quality players without Champions League football. But this might prove a bridge too far.
United could undoubtedly improve, however, they need to do so at a faster rate than their rivals to achieve top 4. The competition at the top is going to be intense this year, illustrated by the one point difference separating the top five, and I could make cases for all those concerned to finish in the top 4 but the maths will dictate that one will miss out; United need to ensure that number is two if they are to succeed. It will not be easy.
In this environment I would argue that the EFL cup will take on added significance this year for United. It concludes in February and notwithstanding the fact that Jose is one of the few managers that like this trophy and has won it three times at Chelsea—the feel-good factor of a day out at Wembley should never be underestimated. There is a trophy at the end of it too and realistically this, more than anything else could act as the perfect springboard for United as they approach the crucial and defining business end of the season.