United have improved, as the Portuguese manager's sides tend to do in his second seasons when he has more of his signings, but they have conceded too many chances for a classic Mourinho team
WATCH: Jose Mourinho's second season at Manchester United will be seen as one of extremes
It was a couple of weeks ago. Jose Mourinho was complaining he did not get enough credit.
He was listing the major teams Manchester United have beaten: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City. It was before his side defeated Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final, too. Before, in all probability, they overcome a weakened Arsenal on Sunday.
A touchy Mourinho may feel deprived of praise again. It is being divided between Pep Guardiola, for winning the title in potentially record-breaking fashion, Jurgen Klopp, seemingly on the brink of reaching the Uefa Champions League final, and Arsene Wenger, for the achievements of a managerial lifetime.
Mourinho is accustomed to leading-man status. Others’ exploits mean United’s renaissance against their peers has been demoted to a subplot in the story of the season. It is a pronounced change nevertheless.
Last season, United won just two of their 10 league games against the rest of the big six. This season, they have defeated each of the others. Take three points against what will almost certainly be a weakened Arsenal team and they will have 19 from a possible 30 against the elite, even before factoring in their FA Cup triumph against Spurs.
In Mourinho’s debut campaign at Old Trafford, they procured just 10 from 30.
Once again, United can rue their neighbours’ excellence. City have completed their campaign against the best. Like United, they only mustered two victories last year. Now they have eight and a healthy haul of 24 points.
United’s improvement can be attributed to various factors. One is that last season was an outlier.
Mourinho’s big-game record has tended to be altogether better over the years. Perhaps this slump, rather than an indication of decline, was simply the exception to the norm and a typically fine home record, in particular, is a reversion to it.
End-of-campaign defeats to Arsenal and Spurs came when Mourinho was focusing on the Europa League. Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United’s champion players, made comparatively few appearances in the biggest games.
It helps, too, that United have improved, as Mourinho’s sides tend to do in his second seasons when he has more of his signings. One of those recruits is a case in point.
Alexis Sanchez has delivered less than may have been expected in many matches, but was a catalyst in the comebacks against City and Tottenham. Pogba produced a huge performance in the second half at the Etihad Stadium.
David de Gea, with 14 saves away at Arsenal and a brilliant stop at City, is another superstar to deliver. The homegrown Jesse Lingard’s capacity to score in major matches means he is a cheaper contributor.
United have started quickly at times and shown the wherewithal to come from behind at others.
If Mourinho wants credit, there are times he should be afforded it: for playing a back three at home to Spurs and away at Arsenal, for bringing on Lingard against Chelsea and isolating Romelu Lukaku against Dejan Lovren when Liverpool visited Old Trafford.
There have been other missteps, such as choosing Pogba in a midfield duo away at Spurs and, in any analysis of United’s big-game efforts, it is impossible to ignore their wretched Champions League exit to Sevilla.
There are legitimate questions if United are constrained by caution at times, operating in a straitjacket.
Ludicrously, Mourinho’s teams had only scored one goal in 10 away games at big-six rivals. Then, in different fashion, they struck three times each at Arsenal and City. In both, they conceded too many chances for a classic Mourinho team, just as United have not reached the heights the Portuguese’s best sides scaled.
Yet advances have been made, as Mourinho hopes others will point out.