In any other year, we’d be talking about Manchester United’s incredible start to the season. An 11–2–2 record has steered them clear of third place by three points and they’re seven clear of fifth and missing out on the Champions League. With 35 goals scored and just nine conceded in 15 games, their goal differential is already better than last campaign’s 38-game mark. Sunday’s upcoming match against Manchester City was the game of the season before the season even began, but City’s historic form — unbeaten through 15, with wins in all but one — has already threatened to drain all of the drama from the title race, if it hasn’t already.
As such, United look like clear holders of the “second best” title. While we might not get the season-long battle for first between José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, their two teams finally have reasserted their control over England.
Or have they?
Year-on-year, United’s current position is an improvement. Mourinho’s side may have secured Europa League glory last season, as well as a League Cup, but finishing sixth in the Premier League marked United as a work in progress. Over the summer, in came Romelu Lukaku from Everton to head up the forward line while Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Benfica’s Victor Lindelof arrived to shore up midfield and defense, respectively. The early results appear promising: solid domestically and also comfortable in the Champions League, where they topped their group. Their last home defeat is also a distant memory — a 2–1 loss to City back in September 2016. However, United’s results are running ahead of the quality of their performances right now, and that is rarely a recipe for continued success.
A surface review of last weekend’s 3–1 victory against Arsenal says that the team secured an early advantage then repelled their opponents to nail down the win. Except, unusually, United were entirely unable to stop Arsenal from landing attempts on goal. The outcome looked like a Mourinho specialty — get ahead early, then defend your advantage — but the process was a new and unwanted chapter in his playbook.
David De Gea’s 14 saves matched a long-term Premier League record, except heroic and high-volume goalkeeping is not the usual hallmark of a top-class team. On a good defensive day, such a team might allow half that many shots in total and their goalkeeper might have to make one or two saves. This couldn’t have been more different. While there is no doubt United’s game plan against Arsenal will have been to soak up pressure after securing an early two-goal lead, in no way will they have intended that their goalkeeper would require a record-equalling performance to secure their victory. Last weekend enhanced De Gea’s already stellar reputation, and in his current form he’s in the conversation for world’s best goalkeeper. However, allowing a bombardment of 30-plus total shots represented a lack of control. United’s defense should have been preventing plenty of those chances from even occurring in the first place.
In isolation, such a game might not necessarily be a huge concern. It is highly unusual for a Mourinho team to be carved open almost at will. Plus, despite early-season concerns and a lack of long-term planning, Arsenal’s attack is currently one of the league’s best, thanks to Arsene Wenger’s ability to rest most of his key players for the team’s Europa League matches. Yet the main problem for United right now is that while results have continued to be largely positive, the structural shooting numbers that underpin them have declined.
Over the first 5 matches of the season Manchester United had a deferential of +55 in shots, +21 Danger Zone and +10xG. Since then -21 shots, -10 DZ and -0.24 xG— Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab) December 4, 2017
For now, United appear to be getting the breaks in games going forward, while the brilliance of De Gea at the other end is going a long way toward keeping them afloat. After a signature game-winning performance against Arsenal, Paul Pogba’s sending-off and subsequent three-game ban creates a pretty easy narrative for Monday morning if the result goes the wrong way: United lost to City because they didn’t have their best player! Except, United’s performances with or without Pogba have been trending in the wrong direction for a while now: They recently edged past newly promoted Brighton thanks to an own goal and almost blew a three-goal lead at Watford, allowing their hosts back to 3–2 before sealing the game with another late goal. Beyond a sucker-punch 1–0 victory over Tottenham, they haven’t convinced in the big games, either. No matter how good De Gea is, they can’t keep relying on their goalkeeper for positive results.
Even despite De Gea’s superhuman saves, the defense has become slightly more vulnerable, too. In their first 15 Premier League and Champions League games, United claimed 11 clean sheets. Since the start of November, they have conceded at least once in six out of seven games, with that victory over Brighton being the only shutout. Mourinho has started experimenting with three center backs in certain games, yet beyond the reliability of De Gea, United have struggled to settle on either defensive structure or personnel.
A big influence here has been a succession of injury problems. Eric Bailly is currently on his second spell out this season, and they’ve also recently lost Phil Jones, who, for all of his meme potential, has been an effective and solid performer. These two look to be United’s most reliable center back pairing for now, but it has been a problematic position at the club for some seasons now. The integration of Lindelof has been slow, and he’s made a number of high-profile mistakes over the past month. During Bailly’s and Jones’s absences, starting combinations of Lindelof, Chris Smalling, and Marcos Rojo (freshly returned after seven months out from an ACL injury) have found themselves holding the fort throughout this weaker spell and the changing formations. While the right back and right wing back position has been held by the apparently ageless Antonio Valencia, the role on the opposite flank has hosted multiple inhabitants: Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, and Luke Shaw have all seen time on the left side.
Despite this defensive instability, United have weathered the autumn well. They’ve been near impossible to break down at Old Trafford, where they have conceded just one league goal all year. They also rank behind only City in time spent losing (123 minutes), and in the rate in which they score while the game is tied (73 percent of the goals). In part, some of the less-than-impressive underlying numbers have been caused by a desire to defend first, either through choice by shutting down games against key rivals, or having secured early leads.
Mourinho faces a unique choice ahead of this fixture with his cross-city rival. Jumping out to a 2–0 lead against Arsenal would’ve typically seen Mourinho’s team shut the game down, allowing some shots yet all but eliminating high-quality chances. Except the defense in front of De Gea couldn’t handle Arsenal’s firepower, and now United welcome the one team that has an attack rated higher than last week’s rivals. With a weakened defense and the vibrancy of Pogba absent from their midfield, it seems unlikely that United will be able to be able to slug it out against City, nor will their manager want them to. His pragmatism and pride will surely gravitate toward plotting to engineer a clean sheet and hoping United can score on a set piece or a small number of shots. Maybe Romelu Lukaku, who has scored only twice since the start of October, can bail them out? On the other side, De Gea can’t be expected to perform magic each and every week. Eventually, if he continues to be repeatedly tested, United’s opponents will score more readily.
Whatever happens on Sunday, United won’t chase down City without rapid and major improvement. Barring a change in their underlying performance, they’ll likely find themselves closer to their other rivals in the battle for a top-four slot. After 15 games, the lead they have built over those teams is significant and certainly gives them a strong foundation, but just ask Tottenham what can happen after a string of bad results: You might end up behind Burnley. Mourinho may have brought trophies back to Old Trafford, but for a club that hasn’t won a Premier League title since 2013, there’s been little so far this season to suggest this team is finally ready to go right back to the top.