The improving displays of Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Manchester United are helping to make the case for steady, if unspectacular, progress under José Mourinho. Photograph: Magi Haroun/Rex/Shutterstock
José Mourinho enjoys going to Everton. “Always difficult, always beautiful,” he says. The Manchester United manager’s reasons include old-fashioned stadium architecture, passionate fans and the fact that Goodison Park was the setting for some of Portugal’s most famous victories in the 1966 World Cup. Mourinho was only three at the time Eusébio was banging in the goals against Brazil and North Korea, but he will not find it too difficult to re-imagine the atmosphere as the ground has hardly changed since.
A more pragmatic reason for Mourinho to look forward to Sunday’s kick-off is that it breaks a disappointing sequence of league games at Old Trafford. The last time United earned three points was away from home, at Swansea. Due to a combination of the international break and the fixture computer United have not had an away Premier League game in almost a month while three home fixtures since the emphatic defeat at Chelsea in mid-October have yielded one point each.
Added to the 1-1 result against Stoke that began the run of draws, that means United have not won a league match at home since beating Leicester in September. This is United’s worst start to a season in 27 years, to which Mourinho’s reply is that, with the eight points his side deserved but did not get from their past four home games, the club would now be in a Champions League position.
Football does not work like that, as everyone knows, though Mourinho is right in saying United fans have been much happier with the way the team is playing this season. They have been particularly happy with the 4-1 results against Feyenoord and West Ham in cup competitions when, as Mourinho says, the only difference from the league performances was that for some reason the chances were taken. Given that even Wayne Rooney has begun to sparkle of late – the United captain is suspended but was excellent against Feyenoord and West Ham – the United supporters who opposed Mourinho’s appointment are gradually warming to the manager and his methods.
Mourinho should learn to curb his temper and cut out the touchline tantrums if he wants to be universally popular but now Henrikh Mkhitaryan is beginning to show his value and Bastian Schweinsteiger is back in from the cold at least it is possible to see what the manager is trying to bring about.
Like a lot of Old Trafford attendees Mourinho rejects Louis van Gaal’s safety-first approach out of hand – too cautious, too boring, too unsuccessful and not remotely close to the club’s traditions. The football United are presently playing is better: more adventurous, more attacking, more watchable.
Michael Carrick has even suggested there are signs of the old club re-emerging, yet it is probably naive to expect results to improve overnight. When Van Gaal used to plead for time, citing what he appeared to hope would be a three-year transitional period, everyone would inwardly groan at the prospect of more tedious football. Now Mourinho, too, is pleading for time, though at least this process promises to be entertaining. He is not turning United into a new version of his original Chelsea, a prospect that alarmed some supporters as much as it intrigued others, and neither is there any evidence of the disconnect between manager and players that curtailed his most recent stay at Stamford Bridge. To judge by recent performances United are on the up again, maybe not climbing as high and as fast as they would like but definitelymoving in the right direction.
Everton supporters would like to be able to say the same thing, though at the moment it is unclear where they are heading under Ronald Koeman. Like Mourinho, Koeman appeared to have a fairly straightforward task in replacing an unpopular manager and who better to sort out an over-generous defence than a former Barcelona and Holland centre-half?
Everton and their manager began the season impressively but could not keep it up. A winning start is the main reason they are still so high in the table, for the old inconsistencies began to creep back several weeks ago. But for Seamus Coleman’s last-minute equaliser they would have been beaten at home by bottom-of-the-table Swansea in their previous home match and, though Koeman’s return to Southampton last week had obvious significance for the manager, Everton went down without a fight.
Losing John Stones has not helped for, though Ashley Williams initially appeared a sound enough stopgap to help Phil Jagielka cope with an inevitable departure, the two thirtysomethings at the heart of the Everton defence are beginning to show their age. AsSo is Gareth Barry, who seems to have been slowing up for much of his career and is now just over a couple of months from his 36th birthday. Add to that a plethora of wingers who all struggle to deliver a telling final ball and a striker who permanently feels he needs more love and better support and it will be seen that Koeman has his work cut out, without even mentioning the enigma that is Ross Barkley.
Still, at least one manager will enjoy Sunday afternoon’s occasion. For the other, the one who heard boos from the home crowd at half-time against Swansea, the Goodison atmosphere is perhaps a couple of poor results away from becoming oppressive.