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Jose Mourinho boldly declared that his Manchester United team gave the best performance of the season on Sunday; it raised a few eyebrows, considering they had just dropped two points to struggling Stoke City, but maybe the manager had more of a point than just the psychological one he was aiming to make.
With such a tough run of fixtures coming after the international break, it was seen as key that United put away the Potters with ease, and, on the balance of play, they perhaps should have. They were given a reprieve by Tottenham Hotspur’s impressive deconstruction of Manchester City but then again, it is worth remembering that United were top of the Premier League last November and surrendered a genuine opportunity for the title.
What that tells is that there are very fine margins in football, and that confidence can play a major role. It is arguably this quality, after all, which won Leicester City the title last season. And for United, it is clear that the shell-shock that reverberated around Old Trafford when David Moyes took over in 2013 is still taking its toll.
Jose Mourinho has done a fine job in already doing more to restore a positive feel around the club than either of his two predecessors but the fragility peeps its head through the door from time to time.
It is a fragility that can be found in United’s display against Manchester City. Mourinho clearly picked a team with the strengths of the opponents in mind. This is classic Mourinho and has never been a sign of an inferiority complex before; but, because United’s players have been suffering with that complex for three years, that was the mood which ultimately saw them played off the park in the first half. The hangover through the following two games before the classic response we saw against Leicester City.
And so all eyes were fixated on the weekend game more than they were against the midweek Europa League tie; when it was announced Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini were substitutes once more, it gave the clearest indication yet that United were moving on. And, for the most part, Mourinho was right. His team did enough to win the game in the first half against Stoke City and it was either due to unreal form from Lee Grant or profligacy from Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic; in fairness, probably a little of both.
But the feel around Old Trafford as the second half commenced was one of apprehension and the visitors took full advantage; for the second forty five minutes, Stoke City can certainly declare themselves worthy of a point, and maybe even felt a little unfortunate to not have won all three. United still created the chances but until the double substitution which introduced Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial, it looked as if their confidence was shot, rather than just frustrated, which was perhaps the most troubling assessment for Mourinho to make.
One he certainly wouldn’t have made was that Rooney was the difference; as in midweek, he was involved in the build-up to United’s goal, though it would be generous to the point of deceit to suggest that was to do with his superior quality. It would however be remiss to dismiss his presence completely; and it’s in these fine margins where United’s chances of success this season will be defined.
One look at United’s goals this season sees Rooney heavily involved in most when he is on the pitch and that of course does not tell the whole story; Paul Pogba, who was so good against Leicester, started the weekend game in fine form again, though his afternoon was defined by the misses. Funny - five inches lower with his close range header, or his tremendous long range effort against Watford, then United’s results are changed and Paul Pogba looks like he’s worth every penny. If David De Gea has his routine game, then United see out the Stoke game for a victory. These ‘if’s do not suggest that Manchester United are the match of Manchester City but they do suggest they can consider themselves somewhat unfortunate (as in the derby, if you consider the Claudio Bravo controversy); however, Mourinho knows that medals aren’t generally decided by luck, and even if they are influenced by a million tiny margins, it is effectively those margins which tell the difference between success and not.
United have dropped points in unlikely games in each of their title winning seasons; Mourinho is doing and saying all of the right things, for there is a fundamental truth in that he could have done no more to help his team win on Sunday. But one of the reasons his time at United is so fascinating is because we are observing whether both man and club can restore their damaged reputation and return to former glories. So far there is enough to suggest the man is capable, but considering the extent of the confidence crisis which he has inherited, should he achieve any success this season it will probably be a greater accomplishment than many will give him credit for.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.