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Are 'the old Manchester United' finally back?

With 13 points from a possible 15, Jose Mourinho’s side have started the Premier League season in impressive fashion.

Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring.
Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

IT’S EARLY DAYS, but on the evidence of what we have seen so far in the Premier League, Man United look back to something like the type of form they produced in the Alex Ferguson era.

After five games, the club who have won more Premier League titles than any other team find themselves second on alphabetical order, given that they have the same record in terms of points, goals scored and goals conceded as Pep Guardiola’s table-topping Manchester City.

They have arguably been helped by a favourable early-season fixture list — none of the five teams who finished above the Red Devils last year have come up against them in the Premier League yet, and that won’t change until 14 October, when they travel to face Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

The signs so far, however, are promising. Last season under Jose Mourinho, United had difficulty breaking some of the weaker sides down. They previously dominated opponents without possessing the necessary ruthlessness to fully capitalise. In 2016-17, only Spurs (4) lost fewer games than Mourinho’s men (5), so it was largely their 15 draws — more than anything else that season — which cost them the opportunity to sustain a genuine title challenge.

This season, the Old Trafford outfit have been showing the type of form (and an increased level of flair too) not seen since the scintillating displays they regularly produced during Alex Ferguson’s 26-year dynasty.

With 13 points on the board, the 2011-12 season where they won each of their first five games (but ultimately lost the title on goal difference to City) was the last time the club enjoyed a greater start to the season. Compare that points tally to the previous five seasons where their struggles were often a foreboding sign of things to come. From the 2016-17 campaign back, they had the following points tallies at the same stage: 9, 10, 5, 7 and 12.

Keep in mind that last inferior points tally (12) was 2012-13 under Ferguson — the most recent season in which they were ultimately crowned league champions.

The results in the years since have reflected the uncertainty and hesitance of the relatively brief and ill-fated stints in which David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were in charge of the beleaguered club.

In addition, what’s arguably most encouraging is United’s goals-for record of 16, the joint-best record in the Premier League currently along with Man City.

In contrast with 86 in Ferguson’s last year in charge, United’s goals record dried up substantially and became increasingly worse under Moyes and Van Gaal.

Compared with this year’s promising start, the past four seasons from 2013-14 on, their goals-for record has finished up as follows: 64, 62, 49, 54.

In 2015-16, the Red Devils recorded their lowest goals-per-game ratio of the Premier League era (49) — to emphasise how poor it was, United only need exactly one goal per game in each of their remaining Premier League fixtures to equal it.

So what’s changed? After all, even their overall goals tally last season under Mourinho (54) was underwhelming.

It should first be pointed out that they have spent over £600 million in transfers alone since Ferguson left. The fact that their finances are far greater than most Premier League sides was bound to tell eventually.

Furthermore, their recruitment was arguably as wise as any other Premier League team over the summer. The current scenario is a noticeable improvement to a few years ago, when they were notoriously slow to enhance an ageing squad with Moyes in charge and Ed Woodward still relatively inexperienced in his role as executive vice-chairman. While they bought far more frequently under Van Gaal in contrast with his predecessor, their fortune with transfers hardly improved markedly — big-name signings such as Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay were unsuccessful for one reason or another.

Compare those issues with this summer. Incoming players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku have both improved the side instantaneously. Defensive midfielder Matic has given United’s attackers greater licence to roam forward while adding a degree of energy and creativity to the midfield to boot. Romelu Lukaku, meanwhile, has five goals in his first five Man United Premier League appearances — only Louis Saha and Robin van Persie have emulated this feat.

The former Everton star has also brought some much-needed pace to his side’s attack. As prolific as Zlatan Ibrahimovic was last season, his general play and influence on the game was inferior to Lukaku’s all-round attributes.

And while the jury may be out on Victor Lindelöf, who has made just one Champions League appearance so far and continues to wait for a Premier League debut, at 23, he has plenty of time to prove his worth and adapt to English football.

Last season, then-new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan was in a similarly position to where Lindelöf is now. Injuries and unconvincing form restricted the Armenia international to just four Premier League starts in 2016.

Yet the improvement and gradual adaptation to the top flight meant Mkhitaryan and others have helped turn United into a formidable force again. As Opta have highlighted, the 28-year-old has already been involved in more goals this season than he was in the entirety of last year’s campaign.

And finally, the Mourinho factor has been integral to United’s improving fortunes. The Portuguese coach has restored a sense of confidence to the club that had scarcely existed at Old Trafford since Ferguson left.

Moreover, since taking charge at Porto, Mourinho has never failed to win the league in his second season with a club, and he is aiming to continue that trend at United this year. This record is no coincidence, and shows the phenomenal impact the manager can have on a club in the short-term at least. His greatest attribute is arguably identifying a squad’s weakness and swiftly amending it with the introduction of better players.

Of course, the true indicator of where United are at will come when they face teams of the calibre of Man City and Chelsea — their emphatic 4-0 defeat of Everton comes with the caveat that the Toffees have failed to win any of their last 11 Premier League matches on the road.

However, the immediate future looks promising — a point that could hardly have been convincingly argued at any stage during the Van Gaal or Moyes eras.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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