Writers United: Half-Time Checkup (ft. Harshal Patel)

The boys talk about United’s season so far, and where they think the club will be, come May.

How do you think the season’s gone so far domestically?

If it weren’t for that blue freight train from across town, I’d be quite satisfied with our season so far. But, football is nothing if not relative, and given that City are probably one of the best teams in Europe right now, our undeniable progress from last season does feel a little hollow. We’re better off on almost all metrics – points, goals scored, goals conceded, than at the same time last year. However, City are probably going to win the title at a canter, setting all sorts of records in the process, and while second place in such a scenario would be a good result, it would be quite anti-climactic given that Jose’s second seasons are supposed to be his strongest, before the inevitable meltdown. So in summation: I’m satisfied, but still unhappy. Go figure…

What about Europe? How’s the return to the European elite been for United?

We weren’t really tested in Europe to be honest; we had quite a straightforward group. That said, we got through the group stages with minimum fuss, barring that hiccup in Basel, and were rewarded for winning the group with a very winnable tie against Sevilla. When you consider that we could have faced Bayern, Juve or Real Madrid instead, Sevilla seem like much gentler opposition, and given that Europe is probably going to be the only route to a big trophy this season, the draw sets us up nicely for a deep run in the competition.

A word on Jose, then? What’s he got right and what does he need to improve?

Mourinho got the summer business spot on, in my opinion. Matic has transformed the side, from back to front, while Lukaku has been exactly as advertised: he’ll score goals, but he will also infuriate with the lack of technical ability at times. Wonder who that reminds me of…speaking of which, Wayne Rooney’s departure was handled quite well too, and Lindelof is showing signs of getting to grips with English football. The side have been a lot more attacking and free-flowing than last season, but creativity is still at a premium. Mourinho really needs to figure out how to get more from the likes of Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw, while improving his use of Martial and Rashford. Our reliance on Pogba is worrying too; something to hopefully remedy in the next couple of transfer windows.

Who’s been our best player so far?

I wouldn’t think we’ve had one standout player so far. Phil Jones has been immense whenever he’s played, while Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have both been superb at full-back; the latter surprisingly so. Paul Pogba is integral to the side; everything runs through him and he is a massive miss when absent. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have raised their game in recent weeks, while David de Gea continues to be excellent in goal. As you can see, a number of players have improved from last season, but if I had to give it to one player, Nemanja Matic probably edges it. He slotted into the team like a natural from the first game, and his ability to break up opposition attacks is what has given the side the platform to go out and play a more expansive game. His acquisition has literally changed the way we play.

And who needs to pull up their socks?

Worryingly, there are a couple of candidates for this. Ander Herrera has been well below his best, his usual incisive passing conspicuous by its absence, while the bite and aggression he brings to the side is also strangely absent, or at least not as effective this season. This could be put down to not playing as much as last season, with the Matic-Pogba axis firmly established as first-choice. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, however, has been on a shocking free-fall. After a blistering start to the season, where fans were hoping a season of adjustment would allow him to truly flourish this term, the Armenian has been anonymous. Pogba’s injury did deprive him of a creative partner; however, he rarely took the initiative, preferring to drift through games without a shred of influence. He has been absent from matchday squads in recent times, and this, allied with rumours of a falling-out with Jose, could mean a January exit. Mkhitaryan must impose himself much more on games if he is to avoid becoming an expensive footnote in United’s history, a la Di Maria, Veron and Memphis Depay.

Where do you see our rivals finishing the season?

City are winning the title, with a good shot at the Champions League as well. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs are all in a battle for the top-four places, along with United. I see Arsenal missing out for sure, with the other teams too close to each other to call. Arsenal may end up utilising the backdoor of the Europa League, like United last season, to enter the Champions League for next year, while Chelsea probably won’t go further in Europe, having drawn Barcelona. Liverpool have a tricky draw with Porto, as do Spurs, facing Juventus. City could do a clean sweep of all the silverware this season, with everyone else fighting over the scraps of Champions League qualification.

Let us know where you predict United will finish in each competition:

Premier League: 2nd, as long as we don’t drop silly points like at Leicester

Champions League: Quarter-finals: I see us beating Sevilla; any further depends on the draw and our luck on the day

FA Cup: Semi-finals: Bold call, but it does represent a realistic chance of silverware, and I expect Jose to give it more importance than in recent seasons

Finally, rate United’s season so far out of 10 – 7: We’ve undoubtedly improved over last season; it’s just a shame that this has coincided with Pep’s revolution at City taking shape. We’ve done what was needed in Europe, and hopefully can kick on there as well as cementing 2nd place domestically.