Manchester United remain at the top of the league table by the end of matchday four, but only just, thanks to Mark Hughes’ Stoke City who, almost predictably, halted United’s 100% record accrued over the first three games.
Here is how the Red Devils fared at the bet365 stadium, where they have been subpar in recent years—since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson to be precise—but why their most recent draw could have been a minor hiccup rather than a sign of things to come:
1. United do not have systemic issues at the back like some of their top six rivals
Saturday’s draw was a case of shoddy defending—where two isolated, individual mistakes cost United two points early on in the season. Manchester United, in relative terms, have been the best defensive side in the country bar Tottenham Hotspur since January 2016. In the calendar year 2017 so far, United have conceded just 12 goals in 24 games—at least 4 less than any other side that has played at least 19 games in the Premier League.
To put that in perspective alongside teams with systemic issues at the back—be it wrong personnel or ineffective style of defending—it is wise to realize that Arsenal have let in 33 goals in the same period, Liverpool have shipped 29 and Manchester City have conceded 20, all in the said timeframe.
Given the fact that United have had multiple center-back partnerships under both Jose Mourinho now and Louis van Gaal before him, and almost regularly play with two ‘not natural full backs’ at full back, they deserve credit for their consistency at the back and should continue to do so, as long as the Portuguese is in charge, at least.
2. Mkhitaryan is an assist machine and Manchester United’s very own Kevin De Bruyne
When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was signed from Borussia Dortmund on the back-end of a season where he played a direct role in nearly 50 of his team’s goals—the sort of output United have not had from one player in years—the excitement was palpable. But the Armenian took his time to settle down and by the time he did, United were already out of the Premier League title race, and in the fight for the top four.
But Mkhitaryan made an impact since he was brought back into the fold—a positive one, particularly in the Europa League, even if we look beyond the vital goal he scored in the final in Stockholm on an emotionally charged night. But the Armenian has taken on a bigger role this season, replacing Wayne Rooney as the number 10 (without physically donning the number).
He’s already created five of the 12 goals that the Red Devils have managed and that is just one shy of Ander Herrera’s 6 assists (highest for Man United in 2016/17), showing how productive he can be in a settled side, with regular and guaranteed playing time.
On Saturday, Mkhitaryan created the second goal, which summed up the best of Manchester United in under fifteen seconds. United will score similar goals in the future as counter-attacking is the way to go forward for this side, blessed with the abundance of pace they have on the flanks and now up top too with Lukaku. It is safe to say that this indeed is going to be the season of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
3. Manchester United have Luke Shaw to look forward to
It’s good news that 22-year old Luke Shaw is nearing a full recovery with minutes under his belt from his involvement with the U-23s. United have strength in depth across most areas on the pitch, but at left-back, the Red Devils clearly seem to lack a player who could break the lines and overlap more often than not. In both Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian, Manchester United do have two highly competent and composed footballers with a flair for defending, who have roles to play in what is expected to be a long season.
But Mourinho, who is aiming to transform a good United side to one that competes formidably across all four competitions in England and Europe, will need more than just good defensive full-backs lacking the penetrative abilities that a modern day full-back provides going forward. (See City, Manchester)
Notice the lack of attacking impetus from Darmian on the left-hand side, as opposed to Antonio Valencia down the other flank. Whether it was down to Mourinho’s orders to stay put or not is immaterial in this case, as attacking empty spaces and overlapping the winger to provide crosses have never been prominent features of the Italian so much as blocking shots and defending one-versus-one.
Luke Shaw, however, possesses natural pace without, but more importantly, with the ball, as well as the intelligence to whip in early crosses into the box, which would greatly improve Lukaku’s output in front of goal. His return to the starting eleven will perhaps give us the clearest indication of where United are actually headed this season.