We all know, despite coming through a tough Cologne test, that Arsenal are under pressure. They’ve had a difficult night against substandard opposition in a substandard competition. The fallout from the relative chaos of last night means that the club will be facing UEFA fines, too. It’s another hassle to a team that doesn’t need it.
Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs have their own problems, Liverpool in particular as they face a zesty Burnley side without Sadio Mane, while stuttering to a 2-2 draw against Sevilla on Wednesday. But the manager who faces the most important game of the weekend could be Jose Mourinho.
Clearly, it has been a pleasant enough start for Mourinho after last year. They haven’t got the injury problems they finished the season with. They don’t have an especially under-stocked squad. They have players who can lead and perform.
David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Matic, Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku may not be perfect, but can be entrusted to act like adults on a pitch, and even exceed expectations. That was difficult to say last season, when there simply weren’t enough reliable figures in the squad. That’s where the pressure comes from.
READ MORE: Man Utd stroll past FC Basel
Last season, there were injuries stacking up to Marcos Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luke Shaw. There was the presence of the emphatically terrible Wayne Rooney. There were enough excuses for Mourinho to claim that a League Cup and a Europa League title represented a success.
And effectively it was, but fundamentally it didn’t give enough evidence to suggest a huge amount of improvement had been made to the side. Witless goals were conceded and Louis van Gaal still appeared to be the attacking coach. The first few games this season have changed that impression.
Paul Pogba was an excellent, improving partner for Matic, and Anthony Martial’s performances from the bench have leaned more towards the direct and threatening efforts of his first season, rather than the aimless and sulking cameos from last campaign.
The only game where a goal that has been conceded was an away match at Stoke, which isn’t exactly easy. They battered enough dross, and mid-table opposition, to suggest that a positive change had been made. Mourinho teams, after all, are always capable of parking the bus against the top sides, and United could do that well enough last season. This year, five games, 15 goals scored and two conceded, is the typical Old United haul.
So this is where the test begins. A bright start was managed last year, but unless a bright start translates into a consistent show of form over the next two months, it may well have been for nothing.
With the trudging nature of United’s Champions League group, where resources are to be rationed sensibly rather than needing great tactical expertise against giants, they need to get as many points as possible to take advantage of what should be an easy passage to the knockout groups. The pressure is not from having to improve, but having to prove to themselves and the opposition that they have improved enough.
Mourinho has a chance to bring United back to something like their old standing. He has correctly described United as in the second tier of European football.
Nobody would expect him to beat Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern, but there would be palpable disappointment if his side did not defeat everyone else they were drawn against. Reaching the quarterfinals is the minimum expectation. To get to this point, he has to get his whole squad playing effectively.
The next step in this is the game against Everton. While they have gone five games without a win, Ronald Koeman is no fool and – Rooney aside – they have recruited sensibly this summer. They are not a necessarily easy opposition.
READ MORE: Mourinho fears Pogba could be out for weeks
And the difficulty doesn’t come from Everton alone, it comes from the rigours of playing twice a week, in a season where every game is expected to matter. As well as this, he must do without Pogba and work out which use of his cynical fouling cloggers, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, are going to help him through the next months.
Mourinho will know this, as will his players. Starting well only means something if It is kept up. They have always been one of the stronger squads in the league, but as a group they have not yet performed like the best Mourinho teams.
He came to United as a man with something to prove – that he was not a busted flush, and that he could build a resilient team that performed for his for longer than a season.
The way for the players to prove that they are not the gutless charlatans they have previously appeared, and the way for Mourinho to show that he is building another team in his best image, is to win against Everton, and keep on winning.