Jose Mourinho's side have started the season impressively, although five of their wins have come against five of the Premier League's bottom six clubs.
Manchester United face first big test of title credentials with trip to face rivals Liverpool
Manchester United’s fixture list didn’t look especially easy at the start of the season, but it was certainly not as tough as 2013-14 when they played Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, twice, in their opening seven games.
That was a baptism of fire for new manager David Moyes, who suspected that the Premier League wanted to make it immediately difficult for champions United, who had won three of the previous five league titles.
United’s first seven league games this season have been against West Ham United, the City’s of Swansea, Leicester and Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace.
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All those sides finished in a group between 7th and 15th last season. They are all established and hard to beat Premier League teams. United managed to beat only three of them home and away last term, yet they have won six and drawn only one so far this season.
Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten side, who struggled for goals as much as home wins last season, have hit 21 league goals and conceded only two. The victories come with a caution, however, for all seven of United’s opponents so far are in the bottom nine, while five of United’s six wins have come against five of the bottom six clubs.
United can only beat the teams in front of them, but while fans are delighted at the best start to a league season since 2011-12, when the team also won six and drew one of their opening seven matches, they know that the next six weeks will be crucial.
United visit Liverpool on Saturday, play a first game at Huddersfield Town since 1971 the following week before fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Newcastle United. In between they face Benfica home and away in the Uefa Champions League, and face Swansea in the League Cup.
United are expected to face those opponents without Paul Pogba, who hoped this season would be when he proved himself as one of the best midfielders in the world. An injury to fellow midfielder and current revelation Marouane Fellaini this week has hardly lifted the mood.
One of the lesser known hallmarks of United in the post Alex Ferguson era is how poor the team were in the autumn. Mourinho’s similar slump after an opening flourish saw the team slip to sixth last season, a position they didn’t leave for the majority of the campaign. By early December 2016, they had won only two of their previous 11 matches.
Louis van Gaal’s side were better in the previous season and briefly touched the top of the league after a game at Watford, but defeats at Leicester and Manchester City hurt in his first term. Moyes’ side lost successive games to City, West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland.
There’s a feeling among the players and fans that United are back on the right track and early talk of a title challenge isn’t being laughed off. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have been instant successes, while goalkeeper David de Gea is in top form and deserved his place on Monday’s Ballon d’Or shortlist.
There are positives all over the pitch, from a more productive Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the thrilling form of young forwards Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. In defence, Phil Jones has been injury free and dominant, while captain Antonio Valencia won’t be distracted by Ecuador’s World Cup plans or potential play-offs for there won’t be any.
Positivity abounds and, with so many good attackers, Mourinho won’t feel that he needs to be as ultra cautious as he was at Anfield last season, especially against a Liverpool defence which has already conceded 12 league goals – one more than 19th-placed Bournemouth.
Wins against the big hitters will put down a marker, but there’s caution, too; a feeling that the team remains in transition and less established than league rivals Manchester City who have already beaten three of the top eight. United were easily outclassed by Real Madrid in the European Super Cup in August.
Mourinho has relied on his star players so far and they have delivered, but he knows he needs to rotate given the exhausting fixture list which follows a start to the season interrupted by two international breaks.
At least he can look forward to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rojo returning after serious injuries. Mourinho can also point to the success of peripheral players like Ashley Young when they have been called upon.
United have started and finished games strongly, with a glut of goals, but their strongest test since that Madrid game awaits on Saturday at Anfield where all that positivity and optimism might be punctured.