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The strange headaches of Manchester United

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Second in the league, but nobody seems to be having any fun. We try to work out why.

Manchester United v SL Benfica - UEFA Champions League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Football is weird. Manchester United are second in the league, are miles better than they were last season, and nobody seems to be enjoying themselves. The fans are quiet, the manager is a surly bundle of neuroses, and the players … well they seem to be getting on with things as much as possible. Juan Mata remains adorable, and Luke Shaw remains in exile.

Here at tBB, we reckon this curious ambivalence can be traced back to four factors that are all, in themselves, fairly ordinary, but work against one another to create the current tension. Sort of like a four-sided pyramid, where all the points are simultaneously trying to pull away from one another and, as a result, causing the whole structure to wobble. Or something. Look, don't think about that analogy too closely. Here they are.

1. Manchester United are having a good season

Actually, that might not even be strong enough. This is, in terms of the raw facts of the thing, a really good start to a season. In the Premier League, after 10 games, United have 23 points from a possible 30. That's eight more than United had (and one more than eventual champions Chelsea) at the same stage last season. And 23 goals scored is more than last season's 13, just as 4 goals conceded is fewer than last season's 12.

In Europe, four wins from four has virtually guaranteed progress to the Champions League knockout rounds, and the League Cup is ticking over nicely as well.

As for the players, Romelu Lukaku has made an excellent start to the season, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are both performing well above last season's standard, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly have both been excellent, and both Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic have, in their own contrasting fashions, made everything better. David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world, and even the manager's substitutions have started working.

In every department, the team is better this season than last. But …

2. Manchester United don’t always look like they're having a good season

Early days, obviously, but United have so far turned in two bad results — a disorganised loss at Huddersfield and a scrappy draw at Stoke — and one unacceptably timid performance, away at Liverpool. More generally, they've recently developed a habit of getting good results without necessarily turning in good performances; neither dominating nor entertaining.

There are problems on the player front too. Lukaku's goals have dried up, Mkhitaryan's retreated back into his shell, Pogba's been injured and his replacements have struggled to convince. Nobody seems to know who United's first-choice left-back is, except Luke Shaw, who knows it isn't him. These aren't season-crippling problems, not yet. But it's possible to detect the kernel of serious problems within them.

It should always be remembered that winning without playing well is one of those habits that is often identified with successful teams (and is far preferable to last season's habit of drawing without playing well). The question of entertainment is trickier: one of the things that makes football so interesting is the constant tension between the performance on one hand and the result on the other. A good performance and a bad result may make for a more entertaining afternoon, but over a season, you'd far rather the trend was reversed. Well, Mourinho certainly would.

And it doesn't help that just down the road …

3. Somebody else might be having a better season

Manchester City, annoying though it is to have to acknowledge it, look good. Very good. United's 23 points from 30 puts them on course for about 87 or 88 points, which is by no means bad. 88 is the amount Mourinho's Chelsea finished on in 2014-15; Alex Ferguson's United won their last title with 89. It's a decent chunk of points that will sometimes win you a title.

City are on 28 points from 30, which stretched out over the course of a season amounts to 106 or 107. Which is ridiculous. And whisper it, but they're pretty easy on the eye as well.

This is not to say that City will end up there. For a start, this is a hopelessly crude method of forecasting. And for an end, no team plays at their best for an entire season. There are too many games, too many injuries, too many silly things to go wrong. United are having their first sticky patch of the season now; City have theirs to come. Probably. Hopefully.

But in the end football teams, particularly those that aspire to win titles, can only ever be judged against other teams, not against the wider context of the competition or their own specific paths of improvement. It might come to pass that United vastly improve on last season, amass what would usually be a title-winning points haul, and get beaten into second place. Success on every level; failure on the only one that matters.

Of course, it doesn't help that …

4. Jose Mourinho is, well, Jose Mourinho

It's important to remember that Mourinho teams aren't always bad to watch. The good ones, in fact, are often thrilling, particularly when it comes to the business of dispatching those poor teams with smaller budgets.

But at the heart of the matter, and the man, lies the fact that he and his sides would rather not take a risk in order not to lose, than take a risk in the hope of winning. This is pragmatism, and a lot of the time it works. The side effect, though, is that in the bigger games, and in other games when things aren't quite working as they should, the team are often galling in their lack of ambition and irritating in their lack of verve.

Mourinho has returned a lot this season to the idea of credit, and the sense that his side don't receive enough. And he may have a point: defending is extremely hard to do well, and United's record of six conceded in 16 (in all competitions) is exceptional. The problem is that even when such parsimony is acknowledged as admirable (as opposed to cowardly), it's hard to love. And it's very hard to reconcile with United's oft-asserted traditions of attacking football, not to mention their thumping investment. Who would spend a billion pounds on clean sheets?

Well, Jose Mourinho would. And he'd look really annoyed if you criticised him for it, too.

A final note

So, United are better than last season, but not better than City, and are scoring more, but not all the time, and Mourinho is still Mourinho, which is good and bad, and the players are better except when they’re not, and nobody’s booing Lukaku but everybody else seems to think they are, and the games are fun when they’re fun but bland when they’re not, and ...

... and Premier League seasons are 38 games long. Manchester United, and everybody else, are just over a quarter of the way into this one. Nothing definitive has happened yet, and it’s certainly possible that nothing definitive will happen at Chelsea on Sunday. As Mourinho himself said just the other day: “Relax. Relax. Relax.”