Whenever Manchester United have appeared to be on the cusp of making a step forward this season in the league, the team have too often stalled. Take the last home game against Bournemouth a full month ago. United would have moved out of sixth into fifth, only a point behind Manchester City in fourth and Liverpool in third. Instead, Jose Mourinho’s side drew for the seventh time at home. United have drawn more home games than they’ve won and picked up more points on the road than at Old Trafford. Bad fortune and questionable refereeing decisions can only excuse so much.
United have yet to take full advantage of the factors that have gone in their favour too - Arsenal’s implosion and Liverpool’s post -Christmas wobble.
United’s superb run of nine straight wins up to January 10th didn’t herald a new dawn and a charge up the table, but five draws from seven league games since. The unbeaten run stretching back 19 games to an October hammering at Chelsea is impressive, but we’re playing in an era of three points for a win, not two. It’ll only be truly impressive if it helps United finish in the top four. Anything less means the league season can't be considered a success, not with Mourinho as boss and all that money spent last summer. There has to be a cut off point between success and failure and fourth place is that this season.
The cups can provide big sweeteners, especially if the Reds can lift the Europa League in Solna in late May. Cups have dominated United’s programme recently; only two of the last nine games have been in the league. That is about to change with three straight league fixtures.
Starting with West Brom at home on Saturday, United are about to start a run of nine matches in April, a schedule which vexes Mourinho’s mind, more so when his players come back injured from international duty as has happened with both central defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Fans will emit a sigh at that news, another ‘not again’ from two of the players most afflicted by injury. They probably feel the same. The news gets worse. Juan Mata had an operation on a groin injury on Friday which is likely to leave him out for the rest of the season. Mourinho’s squad have avoided the horrendous injury list which afflicted Louis Van Gaal a year ago, but losing three players in a week is a blow.
United have a tough run-in with away games at Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and home specialists Burnley, plus a home match against Chelsea. But before that, there are three eminently winnable games in eight days. West Brom at home, Everton at home on Tuesday and Sunderland away next Sunday. If United are going to get in that top four, the team need to be picking up at least seven points from those matches, if not nine.
This weekend’s other fixtures can work in their favour too. Sixth place Arsenal entertain third place Manchester City. Fourth place Liverpool play seventh placed Everton. Burnley, who’ve lost only three of 14 home games, welcome second placed Tottenham. Rivals will drop points.
United are four points behind Liverpool in fourth but have two games in hand. It could be worse, but West Brom are decent – even though they were never in the game between the clubs in December.
The Baggies will come with three former United players: Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and Ben Foster. I’ve spoken to Fletcher and Evans recently and they’re really enjoying life at the Hawthorns. They feel the side has got stronger and that’s reflected by them being in 8th for most of the season – not bad a for team who only average 25,000 – that’s less than half of the total average of the seven teams above them. They feel this West Brom side has goals in them, that their heads don’t drop then they go behind and that while they’ll be underdogs at Old Trafford, they did beat United at the Hawthorns last season and at Old Trafford in the previous season. United are clear favourites, but then they were in the seven matches they’ve drawn at Old Trafford this season.
Evans and Fletcher, whose families still live in Manchester, play every week, which is something which wasn’t happening at Old Trafford as Louis van Gaal decided they could go. He called it wrong. Though neither were star players, they were dependable clubmen who’d not cost a penny. Were £30 million Morgan Schneiderlin or Bastian Schweinsteiger on massive wages really better than Darren Fletcher? Evans can play left back and centre half. He showed what he is capable of when he marked Poland’s Robert Lewandowski in the European championships, but his last season at United didn’t see him at his best. He was a lad whose confidence was battered. A better manager would have got him back to his best. Instead, West Brom are benefitting - and he cost them only £6 million – with £2 million add ons.
Van Gaal has been linked with the Netherlands job this week after his country sacked Danny Blind. Van Gaal is greatly saddened by the results of the Dutch national team. He’s also flattered by the interest and feels that there’s no obvious candidate. He’s interested in working with the Dutch national side again, but not as coach. The 65-year-old was sounded out about coaching and several Dutch internationals said they would welcome him back, but right from the start of the speculation he insisted that while he was interested, he preferred to be in the background, helping, advising and assisting. Van Gaal was successful last time as Holland finished third in the 2014 World Cup finals. Such form gave United fans optimism ahead of his arrival at Old Trafford in 2014, but it wasn’t justified after two underwhelming seasons. Jose Mourinho arrived to an even higher level of confidence. Though United are only fifth in the league, he’s still retained a huge level of support from fans who are convinced that things are better than they were under Van Gaal. They buy into his ‘us against the world’ mentality too and they’re right to have faith in the Portuguese, but more homes draws against West Brom on Saturday and Everton on Tuesday will expose the Achilles heel of his United side in his first season in charge.
It’s time to win.