There are BIG games, and there are important games. And these games are not always the same games.
Last weekend's game against Liverpool was BIG in all the obvious ways: it was Liverpool; it was second against sixth; it was on television; and it was the second half of Merseyside vs. Manchester, whatever the hell that was.
This weekend's game against Stoke? Not so much. Indeed, it isn't even on television in the UK, which is the ultimate insult to an exposure-hungry commercial juggernaut like Manchester United. In fact, United now have an extremely un-BIG fixture list coming up. Their next four games are Stoke City (a), Hull City (h), Leicester City (a), and Watford (h).
That takes us up to the end of February. The second Manchester derby (definitely BIG) is due to be held on the weekend of February 26th, but that's the date set aside for the League Cup final. If United don't mess up the second leg of the semi-final — and they really shouldn't — then that will get bumped to later in the season. And the six league games after that aren't particularly BIG either: Bournemouth (h), Southampton* (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Brom (h), Everton** (h), and Sunderland (a).
This is not to suggest that any of those games are easy. This is a United side that has lost to Watford and picked up disappointing draws against Burnley, Stoke and West Ham. But they are all winnable, for a team with United's playing resources. They're pretty close to should-win, for a team of United's ambitions. And they may not be BIG, but they are exceptionally important.
This is because the rest of the top six have BIG games of their own. This weekend, Manchester City host Tottenham. The following Tuesday, Liverpool host Chelsea. The Saturday after that, Arsenal travel to Chelsea; the weekend after that, Spurs go to Anfield.
Looking further ahead, in March we have Liverpool-Arsenal and City-Liverpool, then in April we''ll get Arsenal-City and Chelsea-City. In all, by the time United play Chelsea — currently scheduled for April 15 — we'll have had eight games between the other members of the six. That's eight occasions in which at least one, possibly two of the teams above United will be dropping points.
Going into the weekend, United are two points behind City in fifth, four behind Arsenal in fourth, and five behind Liverpool and Tottenham in third and second. (And 12 behind Chelsea in first, for the optimists.) With everybody else tearing chunks out of one another, a good run of under-the-radar wins over the next couple of months will push United up the table and right into the middle of that mess. Which is, if you ask Adidas, Ed Woodward and Jose Mourinho, just about where they should be.
The obvious corollary to all this is that the end of the season has some pretty BIG spikes in it. The penultimate and antepenultimate games of the season come away at Arsenal and Tottenham respectively, and if United do make the League Cup final, there'll be an away derby to fit in somewhere as well. So points over the next ten games will be needed not just as an attempt to climb the table, but as insurance against things going hilariously wrong at the last.
So, set the sights on 30 points, with a couple of deductions here and there on the basis that (a) football is weird sometimes, (b) United are weird sometimes, (c) runs of ten consecutive victories are pretty rare, and (d) the Europa League. If United get there, or close to it, then they'll be back in the mix for the Champions League and, presumably, in pretty good nick ahead of the nasty games to come.
On the other hand, if they lose to Stoke on Sunday, then you can basically abandon the league before January's even over. And won't that be relaxing? Most of your weekends, returned to you; just the occasional cup competition to keep things ticking over. A gift, from a club that loves you.
* This match might get moved if either United or Southampton make it to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
** Depends which Everton turn up, of course. If it's the rubbish one, United will be fine. If not, this could be very tricky.