Not bad. Could do better." That, we think, is a fair report on Manchester United's August and September. After all, it's a period that's included dubious defeats away at Swansea City and PSV Eindhoven, as well as a miserable home draw against Newcastle United, one of the worst sides in the Premier League. It's also encompassed quite a lot of ... well, let's be frank here, dull football, as United have pumped up their possession stats at the expense of adrenaline levels.
But! United are top of the league! And that, more than anything, is what matters. We also think there's been a noted improvement in style and fluency as the weeks have passed and the new signings have become more familiar with one another. So: optimism! Let's look ahead to the coming month and see what United have got in store.
Incidentally, this is the first time United have been top since David Moyes began his reign with a 4-1 spanking of Swansea. Let's hope it doesn't fall apart with quite the same speed.
Last time around
When we looked at August and September, we decided that 16 points in the league would be an acceptable minimum, along with qualification for the Champions League. And that's exactly what we ended up with, though admittedly we didn't think that would be enough to be top.
The big caveat to United's league position is that they have, thus far, had a relatively straightforward fixture list. Home games against Tottenham and Liverpool are one thing, but October looks distinctly tricky. United begin with a trip to professional enigmas Arsenal and then, after the international break, visit Everton and Bobby Martinez's entertainers. Then it's the derby at Old Trafford, followed by a trip to Crystal Palace, who couldn't look more like a potential banana skin if they were yellow and being thrown off the back of a kart by Donkey Kong.
Still, all are beatable. Arsenal have been their usual confusing selves this season, a curious and highly amusing amusing blend of skilful football, subtle buildup, and smashing themselves in the face with a rake. Sunday's game comes on the back of their disastrous Champions League collapse against Olympiacos, and with Laurent Koscielny injured, this is probably a decent time to be visiting.
Projecting form and fitness after another round of internationals is tricky, but while Palace and Everton both have potency in attack — extreme pace on the wings for the former; Romelu Lukaku for the latter — these are games that title winners find ways to win. As for City, well, who knows. They were going to win the league unbeaten a couple of weeks ago; last weekend they got shredded by Tottenham. A lot will depend on the fitness of David Silva and Vincent Kompany, and they will certainly be United's toughest test so far this season.
Just the one European game in October, an away trip to CSKA Moscow. It's not technically a must-win, but since United made a mess of their journey to PSV and Wolfsburg look like tricky opposition, it's certainly a could-do-with-winning.
After Ipswich, Middlesbrough. United have once again drawn the worst kind of League Cup opponent: a team from the division below, ensuring that some rotation can be done, but one that isn't total rubbish, meaning it will need to be done carefully. Get it won, though. Cup runs are fun.
Conclusions and demands
Without wanting to be too brattish or spoiled about this, we think United could and maybe should be winning all October's games. Certainly, a failure to do so will say nothing good about their title chances. Perhaps one loss could be absorbed, but we're hoping to see a minimum of nine points in the league, along with victories in the Champions League and League Cup.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, we need to see some further strides in the direction of actually being good to watch. There's nothing wrong with possession, but if it doesn't come with pace, then it's no good to anybody.
Full schedule for October
4th — Arsenal (A)
INTERNATIONAL BREAK WOOHOO PARTY PARTY PARTY!!!
17th — Everton (A)
21st — CSKA Moscow (A, Champions League)
25th — Manchester City (H)
28th — Middlesbrough (H, League Cup)
31st — Crystal Palace (A)