The Busby Babe saw a mince pie the other day. Out in the wild, for sale in a shop. Best before some time in November, obviously. But no matter! This means it’s officially time to start thinking about Christmas.
But before the blessed day of gifts, tears, and Baileys for breakfast arrives, there’s some football to be endured. Manchester United, who currently sit 8th in the Premier League and second in Champions League Group H, have 14 matches between now and midnight mass, and if you’ve put “A new Manchester United manager” on your list, then you might just be in luck.
Elsewhere on TBB, Colin Damms has righteously taken United to task for butchering a relatively easy opening start to the season. He notes, too, that the worst is yet to come, and he’s absolutely correct. To use a technical term, United have an absolute bastard of a run of fixtures coming. Let’s dig in, and see just how unpleasant things are going to get.
The big picture
United have 10 Premier League games before Christmas. Four of them are against teams currently in the top five: Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal (and of those, only the Arsenal game is at Old Trafford).
At least three more of those games are against teams that fall under the category of “tricky”, or “potential banana skin”, or “that kind of game where Wilfried Zaha does his thing”. Because if you’re looking at Everton, Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace and feeling breezily confident about United’s chances, well, good luck to you.
Then there’s Europe, with home and away games against Juventus to come, as well as a visit to Valencia, who were almost entirely untroubled when they came to Old Trafford.
United’s first games back after this international break are Chelsea away, then Juventus at home, which is quite the one-two punch. The Chelsea game is going to be both a difficult game and an uncomfortable comparison, since Maurizio Sarri’s team aren’t just picking up points, they’re doing so in flowing, entertaining fashion. Neither is true of United.
Tragically, this is precisely the wrong kind of fixture to follow on from Newcastle. To harness whatever positive energy is still hanging around from that comeback, United could do with facing a mediocre team with a dodgy defence, somebody they could really try and clamber into. Instead, they’ve got Chelsea, who are scoring more than two goals a game and have conceded just five in eight.
How United approach the game will be interesting: a defensive approach, if it goes wrong, will set the bells tolling again; a more positive attitude, even if the result isn’t ideal, might be encouraging. But on the other hand, a battering would be totally disastrous, and Eden Hazard is very, very good. Mourinho’s instincts are generally defensive, so let’s not be too surprised if United travel with the intention of killing the game.
Juventus, meanwhile, are Juventus-ing along in that way they do. In that way United used to do. They haven’t been perfect, but they picked up eight wins from eight in Serie A, and two from two in Europe.
In an odd sort of way, the two games after those big two might be even more important. Losing to Chelsea, losing to Juventus: these are things that can happen even to the best, and nobody’s mistaking United for the best at the moment. But Everton and Bournemouth are awkward. Both have clever managers and play intelligent football. Everton look to attack and aren’t too bad at it, and Bournemouth, currently two place above United in the table, are lethal on the break.
If the first two games go badly, as they easily could, then these two become absolutely vital. Because United will have those two to rebuild form and confidence before they go to Juventus, and then comes ...
And who knows? United might win 3-2 again! You can probably get fairly good odds on that, mind.
Let’s do some speculating. If United lose to Chelsea, City, and Juventus twice, does Mourinho lose his job? TBB’s gut feeling is that it might require a slip-up in one or both of the in-between games as well, given that (a) Ed Woodward is fundamentally a coward, and (b) Mauricio Pochettino probably isn’t leaving Spurs mid-season.
But. What if United get humiliated in one or more of those big games? What if City take them apart into tiny pieces, then throw those pieces around the Etihad like confetti? While laughing?
TBB asks this question not because we know the answer — we don’t! we have no idea! we’re making this all up! — but because this is the point in the fixture list where a sacking makes the most sense. Immediately after City come Crystal Palace, Young Boys, and Southampton, and while Wilf Zaha is blessed with pace, skill, and narrative, that’s a not-unfriendly run of games for any temporary manager to bed in.
After that comes Arsenal at home, when we’ll get to see just how far Unai Emery’s program of de-Wengerization has progressed. How important this game is will depend on whether Mourinho is still in his job. If he is, then it’ll probably be something close to a must-win game, at least in terms of European qualification.
But if not, then it’s a free hit for whichever poor sod picked up the big coat. Then Fulham, and then the last game of the Champions League group stage against Valencia. That’s going to depend on the previous games, of course, though it’ll help if United get round to doing some attacking this time.
The other derby, sort of
And then comes Liverpool. If Mourinho is still in his job by this point, then we can assume that the results of the previous 12 games have been somewhere between “amazing” and “just about acceptable”. Which means that expectations coming into this game will, practically speaking, be adjusted accordingly.
Except they won’t, obviously, because it’s Liverpool. Worse, if the season continues along the same lines, it’ll be Liverpool in a title race, which is obviously appalling for all sorts of reasons. And so again, it’ll be a game where caution will look bad, where enterprise will be admired but might not pay off, and where getting thumped will be utterly humiliating.
There’s a pattern here, a kind of model for big games with this squad, under this manager. Time and again, United find themselves in a bind where their manager’s instincts fail to align with either their broader ambitions and individual competencies of the players. Caution without control gets punished, as does half-hearted sort-of attacking, and there isn’t the resilience to go all out.
United have won big games over the last couple of seasons, of course, most notably the comeback victory against City last season. There is enough quality in the squad to do good things. But it’s been a while since United controlled such a game, let alone dominated one. And this season, unlike the last couple, everybody else big is looking dangerous. Even Arsenal.
Finally, a Christmas gift from Neil Warnock
Well, hopefully. Cardiff City are pretty rubbish.
The full list
20 Chelsea (A)
23 Juventus (H)
28 Everton (H)
3 Bournemouth (A)
7 Juventus (A)
11 Manchester City (A)
24 Crystal Palace (H)
27 Young Boys (H)
1 Southampton (A)
5 Arsenal (H)
8 Fulham (H)
12 Valencia (A)
15 Liverpool (A)
22 Cardiff City (A)