Christmas was hardly merry for Manchester United last season. The festive period followed three consecutive defeats for the Reds, and a spell of no victories for more than a month, as well as a lethargic exit from the UEFA Champions League. Louis van Gaal was closer to the sack than ever, this writer wrote so after watching a lacklustre header from Memphis Depay allow Stoke City to extend United’s run to four consecutive defeats. It is, therefore, worth noting the progress that the club has made since last year’s Boxing Day fixture, a miserable 2-1 loss at the Bet365 Stadium.
Jose Mourinho’s United have been much-lambasted this season, their style of play criticised as well as the inconsistency of results and performances and inability to finish chances. Yet those claims that Mourinho is the third-coming of disastrous managers who haven’t fit into Manchester United are wrong, the stark contrast to this time last season demonstrates that.
Entire club in better position than last Christmas
It was three consecutive defeats ahead of Boxing Day last season, it’s four consecutive victories this season, against good opposition in many cases; Tottenham Hotspur and an in-form West Bromwich Albion would pose difficulties to the majority of sides.
Comparisons based on results are both limited and obvious, though, hence the tedious and characterless nature of articles comparing Mourinho to his predecessors that adorned the back pages in October. Football is about enjoyment, celebration, excitement; Mourinho has achieved a transformation in those three areas since taking over, if it has taken time.
Mourinho's recent changes at United have been effective
The combination of Paul Pogba and Michael Carrick in midfield, as well as the now silent but unforgivingly effective Ander Herrera, has proved a revelation for the Portuguese, although many Reds will say it was an obvious option. In tapas-style portions, beautiful fluent football has been offered up at United this season; the recent win against Crystal Palace an odd but good example, an unexceptional overall performance but, in certain passages of play, some excellent football that you can only applaud.
That, without a doubt, was missing under van Gaal, and Moyes. Mourinho has players striding with purpose above their excepted level. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones’ defensive partnership is, perhaps shockingly, earning them rightful praise. Their good form, United yet to lose a game with both players starting in central defence, is no sign of long-term brilliance, United yet to come up against challenging opposition, but both players have looked more competent, and Jones is playing his longest spell in the first team in years. That is the most prominent case, but Ander Herrera’s influence has been vital lately, Antonio Valencia is proving an unstoppable force at right-back.
The progress is far from over for Mourinho but things are moving in the right direction. The football is often exciting again, not monotonous and sleep-enforcing. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is United’s most prolific scorer at this stage of the season since Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2002, Paul Pogba’s transfer fee, nor hairstyle, is being discussed, the squad is being rotated well.
For all the work still left to be done (United are too reliant on Carrick and Ibrahimovic, both approaching their mid-late thirties), Mourinho’s United are ticking along well; nothing more, but that’s progress, gradual improvement, isn’t it?
At youth level, improvements also made
Meanwhile, it is also worth noting the extraordinarily rapid overhaul of the academy at Carrington. Nicky Butt's influence as Head of Academy has helped to modernise the system; tens of new scouts appointed to roles at United as the team has been expanded. Meanwhile, last Christmas, United's under-18 side were struggling for goals, let alone wins. Now, the under-18s are flying, having scored four or more in seven of their 15 league games thus far, talent being nurtured together. Last week's FA Youth Cup third round exit was a shock. This improvement comes from a multitude of new signings, both foreign and English, and the appointment of Kieran McKenna as manager.
Sure, United remain finely balanced in terms of the positivity at the club; a spell of defeats could create an extremely unharmonious atmosphere as previously seen both here and with Mourinho at Chelsea last season. However, things are certainly moving forwards for the Reds, and that's as a club, not just a team.