The abiding memory from April last season: trudging through one league game a week punctured by two satisfying results against West Ham away and Everton at Wembley in the FA Cup, perfectly summarising Louis van Gaal’s stint as manager. Had Manchester United knocked West Ham out a month prior at the first attempt, they would only have played five fixtures in their penultimate month of 2015/16. José Mourinho’s team, with some silverware already banked, head into April this season facing a hectic schedule. United and their fans would not have it any other way.
And it’s packed. West Brom (H), Everton (H), Sunderland (A), Anderlecht (A), Chelsea (H), Anderlecht (H), Burnley (A), City (A), Swansea (H). A game every three days before the month’s out. Exciting! Also alarming. But mostly exciting and eminently preferable to the slow death of stilted football played out at an excruciating pace last season. If United progress past Anderlecht into the semis of the Europa League, that trend continues into May, but for now focus should be on next month – and primarily the league.
Despite a few showy declarations about winning the Europa League, some more than others, ultimately playing Champions League is vital for progression, and putting your eggs in a cup basket would be rather dicey, if not foolish. The only exception, assuming United don’t fluff their next three league games, would perhaps be Chelsea at home sandwiched between the quarter-final legs. Mourinho may have to swallow his pride (…) and prioritise the midweek cup games either side, even though he’s welcoming Antonio Conte (sporting a couple of feathers in his cap) and Chelsea to Old Trafford. Chelsea have been comfortably relentless and they will simply have to keep until next season. Mourinho’s snide might be better directed, inadvertently of course, towards Liverpool with befitting acknowledgment of impending champions in the form of written programme compliments, plenty of piping hot coffee and a suitably adjusted press conference chair. Maybe even some pastries.
The other underlying niggle is results against the top six, where United sit fifth. Chelsea is a free hit now but City, Arsenal and Tottenham loom. If Mourinho and United are lagging as they are currently and require wins they’ll have to buck the season’s trend spectacularly, with a Europa League semi-final penciled in around Arsenal. Poor Mourinho can’t even relax into Arsenal away, although that may also be considered a free hit if you’re feeling mean. All rendered moot if United don’t start hoovering up points before 27 April.
The elephant in the room is Old Trafford, or initially how United deal with visiting teams set up to get something. United look much more comfortable up against it away; a different pressure, seemingly physical rather than mental strains against more open sides. The issue is being addressed but United are still susceptible to shipping points against organised sides at home when they’re not collectively firing. Equally, they’re also capable of steamrolling visitors. Regardless of how they do it, six points from the first two games especially would set the tone that United mean business – anything less and things get messy. Others expect them to do enough, and those first three games in April are arguably more key for United than clashing with City, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Nevertheless, league position will be decided in May and Mourinho will probably want the insurance of only really wanting two draws and a win against City, Arsenal and Tottenham – making it hard for yourself is one tradition he’ll want to swerve on this occasion. There is plenty to juggle and more that will change as United barrel through spring. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba aside, Mourinho has rotated his squad sufficiently. Marouane Fellaini, for example, scored crucial goals in the FA Cup replay against West Ham and in the semi-final against Everton last season – you never know who you’re going to need.
Negotiating West Brom at home on Saturday after the final international interruption with five key players out should be genuinely enough to focus on in the meantime.