Two games in is far too early to predict a title challenge. That’s the line Jose’s using in the press and it’ll be one he sticks with throughout the season. In public, he’ll continue to play down United’s chances of a 21st title, while privately hoping his players carry on making sure he gets asked the question.
It’s only two games in, but United are looking good. The best since Fergie retired. Under the Scotsman they were always a side that really hit their stride after Christmas. That stayed in touching distance until the festive period and dug deep to find the extra gear to overtake their rivals.
With Mourinho, he likes his teams to be quick off the blocks. To build a lead and hold onto it. Whatever he says in public, that’s exactly what he’s trying to do here. He got his team in for pre-season early, despite a long, arduous run to the Europa League triumph last term. He got his two transformative signings in time for the season opener. He’s settled on a system, a first eleven and he knows exactly how he wants this team to play.
They’re undoubtedly a team of giants, but it’s not the negative possession-light game everyone was predicting. United have dominated in possession, been ruthless on the counter and not been satisfied with a one goal lead. It all feels very Fergie. There are, of course, tougher tests to come and he may revert to type away at the big boys. But don’t bet on it.
A lot has been made about Mourinho’s second season syndrome. The fact that he’s won the title in his second season everywhere he’s been. This has lifted the expectation in the media, but the feeling around Old Trafford is a little more long-term.
In just over 12 months, he’s really started to build something. Gone is the dead wood in the squad that simply wasn’t good enough. In comes young, hungry, proven footballers ready to strive for the heights the United fans demand, rather than just settle for the mundane.
Matic is the exception age-wise, although they could feasibly get four decent seasons out of him. But keeping Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford together for the foreseeable future is an absolute necessity. It feels like a combination with silverware written all over it.
In his first two games in a red shirt, Lukaku has looked every bit the United player. Strikers always need a good start, especially those bought for in excess of £75million. It’s his goals that will make the headlines and rightly so, but he’s instantly brought a change in dynamism that helps others around him.
In the opener against West Ham, he calmed the nerves by tucking away his first chance. Despite 28 strikes last season, Zlatan missed a lot of chances – especially early on in all those draws at Old Trafford. The longer we went on without breaking the deadlock, the easier it was for teams to hold on for a draw as confidence dissipated throughout the team.
By tucking in his first chance, it freed everyone else around him. None more so than Pogba and Rashford.
At Swansea, he was always an outlet in behind. Defences are scared to death of his pace and power. They simply can’t get tight to him.
He can also come short and play with his back to goal, something he showed against Swansea in the run up to his strike, taking the ball on his chest from Marouane Fellaini’s pass from midfield. Defenders don’t know whether to get tight, sit off or follow him if he comes short. This creates space everywhere around him.
The best evidence of this is in both of Anthony Martial’s goals in the opening fixtures. Against West Ham he was able to spring the offside trap and, against Swansea, run into acres of space in front of their defence from deep.
The Frenchman is brimming with confidence, in no small part down to the presence of the new number 9 and Matic in midfield. The players themselves can feel something building. They know those two in particular are the right additions to kick on from last season’s cup successes. Martial knows he is now playing in a top team. He doesn’t want to leave, but he has to play for his place and make an impact when he gets the chance. He’s done this so far.
United’s bench in the first two games and the strength in depth is frightening – so much so that last season’s player of the year hasn’t had a look in. Ander Herrera will no doubt get his chance, but it’s a measure of the collective step up everyone around the club has taken that the man linked with Barcelona earlier in the summer has only seen five minutes of action as a late sub at Swansea.
You can keep saying it’s early days, Jose. We don’t believe you. United have to be genuine title contenders.