Ever since last month’s 2-0 win over Leicester City, José Mourinho has warned players and supporters not to get carried away. After all, his Manchester United side has been here before. Just a year ago, three wins from three sent United into the August international break on a high note. It proved a short-lived euphoria as the club suffered a nightmarish autumn that sent it tumbling down the table.
An identical 100% start this season has Mourinho tempering expectations and fans hoping that a repeat scenario is not in the cards. This time, though, should end quite differently.
Old Trafford is a fortress once more
It probably sounds odd that home wins over West Ham and Leicester represent a big leap forward, but these were matches where United struggled last term. Home draws to Stoke City, Burnley, Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, and Swansea City consigned Mourinho’s men to a disappointing league finish. Such teams routinely turned up in Manchester, parked the bus, and dared United to find a way through a packed defense. Too many times, they could not.
Enter Romelu Lukaku. The new boy has built his career upon relentlessly punishing mid-table opposition. His critics regard him as little more than a flat-track bully, but that’s exactly what makes him such a useful addition. If Lukaku consistently manages to pile misery on lesser adversaries, he will be well worth his £75 million fee.
Of course, the true measure of this year’s Manchester United will not be known until tested at Anfield, the Etihad, and Stamford Bridge. Until then, though, United can only beat what’s in front of them. Two points have already been gained over the corresponding fixtures from 2016/17 and there looks to be plenty more where that comes from.
Striking a better balance
As brilliantly as Zlatan Ibrahimović’s first season in England turned out, his United teammates too often fell into the trap of funneling all play through him. On one hand, who could blame them for getting caught up in moments of “Ibracadabra?" A talismanic target man blessed with prodigious technical ability who will drop deep for the ball makes for a most attractive outlet. Nevertheless, this was a team unsure of the most effective way to play — and it showed.
This summer’s signings massively rebalanced the squad. In particular, Nemanja Matić’s arrival has lent the team a new defensive solidity, while simultaneously freeing up bodies to press the attack. Lukaku provides a combination of strength and speed that Premier League defenses struggle to cope with. All in all, this United squad looks far more relentless and composed than last year’s vintage.
Does José Mourinho ever lose in his second season?
Don’t run out and start celebrating Manchester United’s 21st league title yet, but Mourinho’s history should prove encouraging. Any manager uses his first season to assess the incumbent players, tinker with roles and responsibilities, and lay a foundation for future success. The second season is when the rubber meets the road.
Mourinho, though, has turned this into an art form. Much has been made of his second season triumphs — and for good reason. From Porto to Chelsea Mk. 2, Mourinho has claimed the league championship in each of his second seasons at a club. As the man himself notes, “Normally the second season should be better than the first because you know the club, you know the players.” Through three matches, Mourinho’s second season magic looks to be as potent as ever.
No club likes international breaks. Players can get hurt and momentum squandered. But not every international break has to change a team’s fortunes as drastically as last year’s. This is a far better team — one focused on righting the wrongs of 2016/17 — and they should prove it again on Saturday in the Potteries.