At no time since Jose Mourinho took over at Manchester United have things looked as good as they do now. Along with the 2-0 home win against Chelsea last season, the 3-1 victory at Arsenal on Saturday was the best result of Portuguese manager’s time at Old Trafford.
The Emirates clash was a fantastic, goal-filled encounter and was the third such game in recent weeks. Newcastle at home was a fine spectacle and, while Brighton the next week was not, it brought another win and clean sheet.
A trip to Watford saw United put four goals past the team in eighth, while Saturday’s result smashed a dire run of games away at the best teams and showed that United can be far better when using their attacking talent, as well as far more entertaining.
The club’s two best players were key. Paul Pogba significantly improves the team when he plays and he’ll be missed in Sunday’s derby vs. Manchester City; Mourinho could be excused if he opts for a more defensive strategy without the suspended midfielder against a team that has won every away match in the league this season.
David De Gea, meanwhile, was even better than his usual exceptional standard. It’s a decade since goalkeeping coach Eric Steele spotted him playing for Spain against England in the final of the 2007 European Under-17 championship.
Steele wasn’t a United employee at the time; instead he worked for Manchester City and had just agreed to stay at the club. But in December 2007, then-United goalkeeping coach Tony Coton called to say he’d have to retire because of injury and to ask Steele if he would be interested in taking over.
“I didn’t want to be disrespectful to City,” Steele told me. “There are some very good football people at City, but United is a different level. United have the history and tradition on and off the field; it’s a machine. I wanted to join United. I had an issue with loyalty because I’d signed a three-year contract to work with Sven-Goran Eriksson at City, but I agreed to stay until the end of the (2007-08) season. What a fool I was; I missed out on United winning the European Cup in Moscow, but I felt that I had to be loyal to Sven. I can’t regret that.”
Steele, along with Eriksson, would lose his job anyway when then-City owner Thaksin Shinawatra sold the club to the City Football Group from Abu Dhabi. United, meanwhile, were champions of Europe but, once the celebrations died down, Sir Alex Ferguson’s priority was keeping Cristiano Ronaldo at the club. Steele felt forgotten about and accepted a job with Paul Ince at Blackburn Rovers.
“I signed for Blackburn at 2 p.m. on July 5,” said Steele. “Guess who rang me two hours later? The gaffer (Ferguson). ‘I’ve just signed for Blackburn.'”
“You stupid so and so,” said Ferguson.
“What do you mean stupid; I didn’t hear anything from you,” replied Steele. “TC (Tony Coton) hasn’t heard from you. What am I supposed to do?”
Ferguson assured Steele that United would “sort it” and, ultimately, paid Blackburn £70,000 compensation for the three weeks Steele spent at Ewood Park.
In his new role, Steele knew that 37-year-old Edwin van der Sar would need replacing sooner rather than later and, while young goalkeepers Ben Amos, Sam Johnstone and Ron-Robert Zieler were talented, they were not ready for the first team.
Steele spent a year flying around Europe, watching Maarten Stekelenburg at Ajax, Hugo Lloris at Lyon and Manuel Neuer at Schalke. He also watched Iker Casillas, Joe Hart and Petr Cech, though United didn’t consider any of them gettable. Indeed, Neuer said that, if he wanted to go to Manchester, he’d go there on holiday.
Steele pushed the case for De Gea and it helped that Ferguson had been to watch Atletico with him several times to look at other players. The duo marvelled at the calmness, composure and inner strength shown by such a young keeper. Meanwhile, De Gea wasn’t delighted with the way his club were treating him and, with Atletico nowhere near as powerful financially as they are now, he moved to Old Trafford in 2011 for £17.5 million.
Six-and-a-half years and 289 appearances later, he’s the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, if not the world. He’s also happy at United, though the temptation of Real Madrid will always be there. It’s natural, given the size of the club and that fact he is from the Spanish capital, as is his partner.
But there’s a buzz about this United team and he’s part of it. The team spirit was evident from the manner in which the players celebrated goals at the Emirates, with dances and smiles. This isn’t a squad fractured and doubtful of the manager as it was under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. They claimed to be united; they were not.
This is the best United team of the post-Ferguson era, though it’s still not at City’s level and we’ll see how both measure up this weekend. The injury situation is positive, confidence is up and Mourinho’s side is the only team in English league football with a 100 percent winning record at home in the league. They are second with 35 points from 15 games; a year ago at this time, they were marooned in sixth.
The mood will be different if United lose on derby and City are undeniably excellent, but they’ve enjoyed their own luck recently. It’s time for United to enjoy some good fortune, just as they did when they employed the man who’d already spotted De Gea. After all, had Steele stayed at City, the Spaniard might have represented the other side of Manchester on derby day.