Fairly simple, this one: finish second. City are going to win the title in record-breaking fashion, and while this is deeply annoying, it’s not just United that they’ve left choking in the dust this season. First loser it will have to be.
There isn’t much practical difference between second, third and fourth. Nobody gets a trophy; everybody gets a Champions League place. But the symbolism should not be underplayed. Finishing behind a history-making side is, after all, an understandable thing to do, even if the gulf in style is galling and the identity of the history-makers distressing.
But United, on the whole, have been a little less thrilling than the sides immediately below them, Liverpool and Spurs, and as such the bottom line becomes more important. Finish second, and there’s evidence of some function to offset the lack of form. But a finish behind one or both of them will be much harder to reconcile. The question will then become: we were boring and we weren’t as good? And that’s not a happy place to be.
So, details. United are currently two points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand. They have eight games remaining, which can be roughly sorted into three groups: Big Games; Games Against Teams In Trouble; and Games Against Teams That Probably Don’t Have Much Left to Play For.
The last group first, since it’s the least interesting. United’s last two games of the season are against Brighton & Hove Albion (home) and Watford (away), who are currently 11th and 12th in the table. Neither are safe from relegation yet, but both should be by the time May rolls around. This means that these games will be (a) very winnable for United, and (b) very, very boring. The other game is away against 10th-placed Bournemouth on April 18, just three days before the FA Cup semi-final. One for fans of rotation, that.
As for the teams in trouble, United have three of the relegation-botherers lined up. At Old Trafford, United host Swansea this coming weekend and then West Brom on April 15, in addition to an away game against West Ham that has yet to find a date. All are obviously very winnable, in that these teams wouldn’t be where they are without having lost many games of football. West Brom in particular look utterly rancid.
But this is the time of year when relegation-bound sides do funny things. West Ham at home should, in theory, be tricky, but West Ham’s home is a strange and angry place at the moment, as the fans turn against their the board while the team falls apart. Swansea are perhaps the more likely to do something awkward: Carlos Carvalhal has won eight of his 17 games in charge so far, and drawn six more. This game has “plucky underdogs take huge step toward safety against lethargic United” written all over it.
As for the big games, we’ll touch on the derby below. The other one is against Arsenal at Old Trafford. You’d imagine United will be favourites, given that they dissected the Londoners in London earlier in the season. And should Arsenal make it past CSKA Moscow in the Europa League quarter-finals, then this game falls neatly between the two legs of the semi-final. Wheel the kids out, Arsene! What’s the worst that could happen?
Ultimately, it’s in United’s hands. There are enough points in those fixtures to keep Liverpool and Spurs at bay, such that any failure to do so will amount to a serious mark against this team.
As you’ve no doubt heard, Manchester City could win the title at home, against United, on April 7. And while the earliness of that date is an embarrassment to the league as a whole, the sting of the occasion will be all United’s to enjoy.
There are two plausible paths around this disaster. The first is to chuck the game against Swansea, in the hope that City beat Everton while Liverpool drop points away at Palace, thus ending the title race a week early. While deeply unethical and probably illegal, it’s worth considering. Would handing out a guard of honour be fun? No. Would it be better? Absolutely.
The second and on balance preferable option is to win the game. Or at least, not to lose it. This will of course be tricky: City are very good and are undefeated at home this season, while United’s record on the road against decent teams is … well, it’s not great. (Except against Arsenal. Thanks, Arsenal!)
Optimism comes from two places. The first is that if Mourinho is what he appears to be — an empty shell of a man held together by spite, bile, and a burning desire to see Pep Guardiola’s head mounted on a spike — then he should be up for this one. We saw against Liverpool that he is still capable of coming up with a plan to defang and then defeat a notionally more attacking opponent, if he fancies it.
The second is circumstantial (and while there is little glory in leaning into circumstance, there’s no sense rejecting it). This game comes between the two legs of City’s Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool, and given the state of the league table it’s safe to assume where Guardiola’s priorities will be. Wheel the kids out! What’s the worst that could happen?
(Since you ask, the worst that could happen is that Guardiola’s kids take United’s first team to pieces, and we all have to spend 90 miserable minutes watching Marouane Fellaini try and get close enough to Phil Foden to elbow him in the head.)
What we’d really like to see, of course, is United turn up, tear into City, and triumph by the odd goal in seven. Being unable to pull that off, away to a record-breaking team, is entirely forgivable. Being constructed in such a way as to render even the attempt unthinkable, however, is a whole other level of bleak.
The FA Cup
Ah, Tottenham away. No, sorry, Tottenham at a “neutral ground”, which just so happens to have been the one they’ve been playing at all season. Top work, “the FA”. If that is your real name.
We’re not alleging conspiracy here; just the normal, everyday, unthinking incompetence that marks so much footballing administration. In truth, it was an act of appalling cultural vandalism to move the semis away from other neutral grounds in the first place. This is just a fresh new twist. Villa Park did nothing wrong.
Ahem. Anyway, the last time United went to Wembley it was … not good. Spurs were one-up within seconds and two-up before half an hour. Yet perhaps more frustrating than the result was the general tenor of the game. Spurs were incisive, imaginative, and restless in attack, constantly shifting and probing and asking deeply awkward questions. United, by contrast, sort of huffed around a bit, making occasional gestures towards football without ever really threatening to produce any. United may be four points ahead of Spurs, but on the pitch, on that day, they looked years behind.
This, then, is a chance to right that wrong. Perhaps the mysterious force of Spursiness, having skipped the league game, will return with a vengeance in the cup. Or perhaps United will remember that defending is a thing that football teams can and should do. Either way, it will need to be a closer game in both the result and the performance.
Should United make it past Spurs, either Chelsea or Southampton await in the final. You’d imagine the former; the Magic of the Cup or the Misery of Conte might contrive the latter. And while winning the FA Cup isn’t and may never again be the glorious thing it once was, it would move United to three trophies in two years of Mourinho, while simultaneously giving everybody something to smile about.
If United win all eight of their remaining league games, they’ll finish with 89 points. If they don’t win the derby, as the odds suggest, but win the rest, it’ll be 86. The former would be the same amount that Alex Ferguson picked up in his last two seasons, winning the league in the second of those, while the latter is more than United won the title with in 2010-11. No idea what everybody else was doing that season.
Obviously leagues are relative things: you’re not racing to a specific point, you’re just racing everybody else. And just as Mourinho’s Chelsea set new standards when they began to pick up titles, perhaps Guardiola’s City are moving the bar again. But given that United haven’t broken 70 since Ferguson left, a strong finish and a decent total would be a Good Thing.
Also there’s Romelu Lukaku. Despite that sticky patch, United’s no. 9 has 25 goals in 44 games. One more would equal his best ever return for a season, and 30-plus remains well within his grasp. Not bad for a first season at Old Trafford.
The general state of things
What an odd and frankly unpleasant position to be in. Wondering if City might be distracted enough to allow United a sniff at not looking silly. Wondering if Tottenham are going to make United look like fools in a big game. But then, it’s been that kind of season. United have been demonstrably and practically better than at any time since Ferguson departed, yet have constantly been bumping up some mysterious block that allows points, but no panache.
Is it the manager, a broken parody of his former special self, left behind in a world where footballers require more than psychological brutality and football requires more than reactive negativity? Is it the players, a bizarre collection of the left-over, the inadequate, and the overhyped, thrown together by different managers with different preferences, working to different plans?
Or perhaps we should be looking beyond the immediate. Is it the club, which appears to have no plan at all beyond the endless transformation of attention into money? Social and traditional media, utterly without patience, addicted to the swells and counterswells of hype and crisis? The fanbase, curdled into impossible expectation by the success that came before? Or maybe it’s some weird Voltron built from all of the above, each plugged into the next, tottering monstrously around the northwest.
We’re not sure. We don’t think that the rest of the season is going to give us the answers, either. But it would be nice to see some of the talented footballers that United undoubtedly have — Paul Pogba! Remember him? Alexis Sanchez! Remember him? — displaying that talent in an entertaining and constructive way. It seems a modest goal, in some ways. But it doesn’t seem a particularly likely one.