Manchester United came into the Christmas fixtures in 2015 on the back of a poor run of results in December which included Champions League elimination at Wolfsburg, a home defeat to Norwich City - who would be relegated that season - and an away defeat to Premier league newcomers Bournemouth. Pressure was high on then-United manager Louis van Gaal while Jose Mourinho, who had just been sacked from Chelsea, was being strongly linked to the United hot seat.
Fast forward twelve months later and United enter into the Christmas fixtures for 2016 in buoyant and confident mood with Jose Mourinho as manager and the Dutch man a distant memory. The new season has not been as smooth as most reds anticipated on the arrival of the Portuguese tactician in the summer but United seem to be finding form just at the right time.
A month ago, Manchester United’s top 4 hopes were effectively written off with the team struggling to see out games and dropping points at home to Stoke, West Ham, Burnley and Arsenal and away to Everton in games where they were completely in control. However 3 back to back wins in the league (including two away games at historically difficult grounds for the reds) in tandem with the teams occupying the top four positions dropping points means Man United are only four points behind Arsenal in fourth and seven behind Liverpool in second.
With the right results over the Christmas fixtures which includes home games against Sunderland and Middlesbrough and a New Year’s Day fixture away to West Ham, the reds could find themselves in the top 4 by the time 2017 kicks in.
The foundation seems to be in place for United to provide their fans with a very different Christmas compared to last year. A year ago United looked toothless and disjointed as they lost 2-0 to Stoke on Boxing Day to make it 3 defeats in a row for Louis van Gaal’s side. Morale was so low that the Dutch man was rumoured to have offered his resignation to the United Chief executive Ed Woodward. This is in sharp contrast to the rumours swirling around this December which suggest United are looking to offer Jose Mourinho a contract extension just 6 months into the job.
Complacency – the enemy of progress
However, the positive momentum the reds have built up will count for nothing if they do not capitalise on the favourable Christmas fixtures they have been given. Ruthlessly seeing off Middlesbrough and Sunderland will be the perfect way to end what has, at times, been a very difficult 2016 and a win away to West Ham would fully underline the reds resurgence under Mourinho.
To achieve this, the United team must guard against complacency, something their legendary former manager Sir Alex Ferguson described earlier in the year as "a disease". The fixtures look relatively easy on paper but to approach the games in that manner would be detrimental for the reds. The Boxing Day fixture against Sunderland would see former United manager David Moyes return to the Theatre of dreams for the first time since his sacking 3 seasons ago and the Scot will have something to prove. Aitor Karanka, Jose Mourinho’s protégé would also be looking to pull one over his mentor when he brings his Middlesbrough side to Old Trafford. Back when Steve McLaren, Sir Alex’s assistant, was managing Middlesbrough, they always proved a tough test for Alex Ferguson’s United with Steve McLaren emerging victorious on more than a few occasions. It is a pattern United most avoid with Karanka and Mourinho if they are to keep their current run of form going.
The same focus and determination that have got the team here must be applied and carried on going forward in order to sustain momentum.
Mourinho must also get the balance of his squad selection right as he rotates to keep the team fresh as games come thick and fast. The two main issues he will have to encounter are how he covers for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick. The Swedish centre forward and the English midfielder are arguably the two most important players for Mourinho’s side, however they are both 35.
It is unlikely that both players will be able to play all three games for the reds and as therefore as a result, Jose must decide which games they play in and what happens to the team in their absence.
The return of United’s Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, if as expected he does return for the Christmas fixtures, gives Mourinho extra ammunition to equip United to succeed.
All signs point to a merry Christmas for the reds this time around; they will be hoping the reality is no different.