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Manchester United must treat lower-ranked clubs as Big Six teams in order to challenge for the title

If United mean to really challenge City next year, they must maintain the same focus against the lesser teams as they’ve shown against their direct rivals.

Brighton and Hove Albion v Manchester United - Premier League
Pogba has been a frequent culprit.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

As the sun sets on another Premier League year, Manchester United fans are left again wondering where it all went wrong. At the beginning of the 2018 campaign, the Red Devils were easily the favorites to lift the Barclays trophy, with José Mourinho’s ‘second season syndrome’ a sure indicator of optimal success. Fast-forward nine months and the Red Devils are inevitably settling for second place. Even with a FA Cup title next weekend, United’s season will sting with plenty of what could have been scenarios.

One particular outcome that continues to haunt United players and fans are the shock losses against lower level clubs. Early into the year, supporters may recall there was a time Manchester United and cross-town rivals Manchester City were neck and neck for the title. Week after week, maybe a point separated the two clubs from the top spot. Even after United’s embarrassing 0-0 draw at Anfield Week 8, the title was still within reach.

The following week, United would earn their first league defeat of the year at the hands of newly promoted side Huddersfield Town. Despite whatever effort United put forward, the Terriers outperformed them immensely, making the dynamic club look like a Championship team. Marcus Rashford’s consolation goal couldn’t even rescue Mourinho’s men from the onslaught of public criticism that followed that 2-1 defeat. Besides being an easy win, United proved one simple thing: breakdowns against smaller clubs prove to be as impactful as those against larger ones.

As easy as it’s been to place particular blame on Mourinho’s managerial decisions, at this point responsibility doesn’t just fall on the Special One. Against these smaller clubs, United’s XI have looked lazy, unenthused and inexperienced. Last Friday night’s 1-0 defeat to Brighton means United lost to all three promoted teams and to one relegated team (West Brom), points that could have almost made the pursuit for champions of England competitive beyond December’s festive fixtures. While United were clearly the more dominant team in yesterday’s 0-0 draw against West Ham, they failed to once again present a compelling argument as to why they’re the best club to challenge City’s domestic title next year.

In his post-game presser following that Brighton loss, José implied that individually, his players were not as strong as he thought. Sure, United were without their £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku, but lack of depth is hardly a justifiable reason to accept a drubbing against a nearly relegated club. There was little at stake in last week’s match, so perhaps that contributed to the lack of intensity. In spite of, a win is surely expected, and therefore maximum effort is required to capture three points.

For a team that’s been criticized for underwhelming performances against their Big Six rivals, United have successfully silenced analysts with commanding victories where the odds weren’t ever in their favor. From a dramatic win at the Emirates last December to keeping Manchester red after last month’s derby, United moving forward will have no problem securing a top four spot in years to come. While returning to Champions League dominance will probably take years to achieve, a Premier League title next year is not only essential for Mourinho’s legacy at Old Trafford, but furthermore an attractive sell for future transfer targets.

Even in his second season with United, Mourinho has already made vast improvements than his first, shaping his roster for long-term success. It’s worth mentioning, runners-up in the most competitive league in Europe with the potential next weekend to add to the growing trophy case at Old Trafford is not a wasted year. In order to remain at level with City, however, second place is not good enough. Mourinho’s apathetic demeanor following Friday’s defeat at Falmer Stadium reveals a deeper concern, which could be interpreted that he honestly wasn’t as troubled with this unimportant defeat as his attitude otherwise suggested following January’s rout against Tottenham.

With Liverpool showing signs of resurgence at the league level and Manchester City keen to defend their title campaign next year, José Mourinho has got to share some blame with his men regarding their dissatisfying form against these beatable clubs and furthermore work to amend the common mistakes that get exposed during said shock collapses. Excuses are no longer acceptable, and players must be open to extraordinary growth in order to remain a part of this team. At the culmination of this summer’s transfer window, Manchester United have the potential for a Sir Alex-era streak of success, they just have to acquire the most attacking system in England in order to prosper.