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José Mourinho has benefited from lowered expectations

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United should have appointed Mourinho immediately post-Ferguson, but the manager might now be thankful for the club’s three-year-long mistake.

CSKA Moskva v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The temptation to suggest that Manchester United are back, or declare that they’re on lofty tracks, is understandably seductive. Everyone wants to call it early away from the hyperbole of live television punditry, but everyone is still just simply watching it unfold. Given the laboured road back for United so far post-Ferguson, it seems unwise to even bother unimaginatively professing their return for the meager payoff. Expectations unravelling has become the sobering reality recently, notably including last season, and a title challenge would be a serious shift in progress regardless of continued spend on players. Yet a sustained campaign in the league and cups is eminently possible with the squad José Mourinho’s shaped, and slowly questions are being answered.

Southampton away stood out as a genuine early hurdle in an untroubled start even before Paul Pogba got injured. United should have comfortably scored a second before half-time, but it never came and Southampton rallied against a side wilting after the break having been shortchanged. Mourinho appeared to respond to his team’s rapidly declining situation rather than invite it or shut it down - it may have been the plan to an extent with a better lead, though this seemed damage limitation on the fly rather than something prescribed in advance. Mourinho reckoned his players were fatigued in the sunshine down south focussing attention afterwards on a physical deficiency instead of mental. Besides, United may have just got lucky which is also very welcome.

“We always try to play well, but in some moments of the match, if the opponent has moments of superiority, we have to be humble like we were against Southampton and cope with the difficult moments of the game.”

They did, just. Whether that is remotely significant relies entirely on clearing their next obstacles. Head into the international break still undefeated and then negotiate a trip to Liverpool, and we might start talking.

Had Mourinho taken the reigns immediately after Ferguson, anything less than what United are currently working towards would have been intolerable. United were worried about Mourinho’s arrogance at the time blissfully unaware of their own appointing David Moyes. Three years waiting wasn't the plan for Mourinho but he might look back and be thankful for the checked expectations and relative serenity he is now happily enjoying.