Five reasons for optimism around Man Utd…

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Mourinho’s tough love is reaping rewards…
You can question Jose Mourinho’s man-management techniques – and many do – but there are signs that United are starting to see the benefits of the manager’s tough love approach.

Luke Shaw is the biggest success story so far this season. It had reached the point earlier this year where Shaw’s team-mates perceived the manager’s treatment of the left-back to be ‘bullying’ and it seemed almost certain that the England defender would walk away from Old Trafford to escape Mourinho’s vilification.

Fast-forward six months and Shaw has recommitted to a bumper new contract and the 23-year-old has played every Premier League and Champions League minute for which he has been available. He is already just one and a half games away from recording the most amount of league minutes played in any season since moving to United in 2014 and, arguably, he has been the Red Devils’ player of the season so far.

“I think he got frustrated with me because he knew I could do better,” said Shaw in September. “When I look back, maybe he was right. It was a tough few years but it made me stronger mentally. I wanted to prove to him I can do what he said I couldn’t. I’ve matured. You could say I’ve gone from a kid to a man. I know what I need to do to push myself.”

Another young star who has seen more of Mourinho’s stick than his carrot is Anthony Martial. The France forward is a year younger than Shaw and the former Monaco flier has been in similar need of a rocket up his backside more than an arm around his shoulder.

Martial’s team-mates have commented that the 22-year-old does not yet recognise his own talent and potential, while Mourinho claims he has purposefully made life difficult for the Frenchman to toughen him up. The manager is now giving Martial the platform to prove himself with six consecutive starts and a goal every 104 minutes suggesting the penny has dropped.

Pogba and Mourinho appear to be on better terms…
Paul Pogba divides opinion like few other players. There are those who believe he can do no wrong and others who cannot see what the fuss is about. His performances suggests that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, with the World Cup winner showing glimpses of both genius and infuriating ineffectiveness throughout his two-season spell at Old Trafford. This term has been no different.

But that World Cup triumph has given Mourinho a headache. The game’s greatest honour appeared to have fluffed Pogba’s ego to an almost unmanageable point, with the 24-year-old admitting that he returned to United duty with a poor attitude. That was in no small part due to his desire, and certainly that of his agent, to move on before the start of the season, and despite Mourinho offering Pogba the vice-captaincy – presumably against all his natural instincts – the manager had the olive branch tossed back in his face.

The pair’s relationship reached the point that Mourinho engineered a public confrontation with a player who was said to be ’embarrassed‘ to work for this manager. The fall-out saw many United fans for the first time side with Mourinho but, fortunately for the club, that point in the wake of the Carabao Cup defeat to Derby appears, for now, to have been rock bottom.

Since then, as Mino Raiola admitted, there has been a thawing in the relationship. Both parties were culpable in allowing their differences to manifest in such a way, but Pogba and Mourinho need each other. Without Pogba in their midfield, United look dreadfully one-paced and predictable, while the midfielder presumably recognises that showing some consistent form is in his own best interests, whether he is willing to stay or not. If indeed he wants to move on for big money, similarly to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard, the only way Barcelona or Juventus will stump up what United would expect is if his performances justify the investment.

Regardless of his long-term future, more immediately, there has certainly been a ceasefire between Pogba and Mourinho, which not long ago was as unlikely as it was necessary.

January is edging closer…
It is a scathing summary of the state of affairs at Old Trafford that simply the passing of time is seen as grounds for optimism. But for change to occur within Mourinho’s squad, the transfer window has to be open. January is now only eight games and seven weeks away and Mourinho’s gripes over a lack of support in the market have already been rammed home.

The manager has been at pains to play down expectation so far this season based on United’s shambolic approach to the summer window and some remedial work is required in January. Given the evidence on the field and the reaction off it, surely Ed Woodward, a former investment banker, won’t repeat his mistake of believing he knows better than the manager what is best for the squad.

Mourinho was crying out for a central defender in the summer and United were linked with at least eight of them. Woodward, however, decided that none were better than the players already occupying the dressing room. Twelve games into the season, only one team outside the bottom three has conceded more goals than United who, inconceivably, have a negative goal difference.

At least, so far, Woodward has tried to keep up the charade but if he refuses to invest in January in line with the club’s domestic rivals then at least he can deny no longer United’s shifting priorities and what the football club has become. The vice-chairman has made noises about identifying a sporting director but sceptics doubt that the possible insertion of a Glazer stooge between the manager and the board would make much difference. Regardless, so far little progress has been made, and all the while Mourinho remains the club’s brightest football brain, then it is he who must make the football decisions.

There is talent coming through the ranks…
Even if you have lost faith in this particular group of players, United have at least worked on laying the foundations for some exciting young talent in the coming seasons.

Promoting youth is in United’s DNA but that – until recently – appeared to have been forgotten. United rested on their laurels and relied too heavily on their historic reputation as a talent factory to the point that the production line almost ground to a halt.

Before Nicky Butt’s appointment as academy head in 2016, the youth set-up was being overseen by the club secretary for almost a year. A combination of stagnation within and greater competition for talent meant that even United’s first-team players were sending their sons to Manchester City’s academy.

Many saw United Under-23s’ relegation from Premier League 2 as symptomatic of that period of prior to Butt’s appointment, even if the former England midfielder disagrees. Butt insists the academy is now “thriving massively” and the talent now on the fringes of the first-team squad – combined with coach Kieran McKenna’s promotion to Mourinho’s bench – suggests he might be right.

The progression of the likes of Tatith Chong, Angel Gomes, Callum Gribbin, Mason Greenwood and others may not come in time for the current manager. But at least the academy is back in rude health, which indicates that the traditions of the club have not been entirely forgotten.

Spirit still remains…
Only Arsenal have gained more points than United from losing positions this season. Leaving aside for now the reasons why they so often go behind, the squad’s appetite to respond is encouraging, especially when on some occasions, their desire to play for Mourinho at all has been questioned.

The first-half performance against Newcastle at Old Trafford, which saw them trail 2-0 at half-time on their way to a fifth game without a win, was scarcely believable. The obvious explanation for such a catastrophic display, especially in light of the pre-match rumours, was that the team was playing to get the manager sacked. After 45 minutes, that job was done.

But the first-half shambles gave way to a rousing second period, when United fought back to triumph 3-2 with a winner in added time. For some, it was too little too late, but not so for Mourinho’s job prospects. Since that win, United have trailed in all but one of their six matches, losing two against Juventus and City. At Chelsea, Bournemouth and Juve, they showed a similar appetite to that on display in the second half against Newcastle. Where there is spirit, there is hope.

Again, it is hard to think of a more damning indictment of how standards have slipped at United that we are lauding the richly rewarded players for offering some evidence that they still want to play for the club and its manager. But it could be worse…

Ian Watson

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