United have been no match for City this term, but the fans’ patience won’t last through another 12 months of the same.
Even if it doesn’t happen in Manchester United’s presence on Saturday, the inevitability is that Manchester City will be the 2017-18 Premier League champions. The best team in the land by a country mile will, sooner or later, be crowned.
Whether United fans like it or not, they have at least had the last few months to get used to the fact that their noisy neighbours will have a third league triumph in seven seasons to celebrate. City have been so good all year that there was never a doubt they would walk away with the title as soon as they left Old Trafford with all three points in December to extend their lead to 11.
Such has been City’s dominance that most observers have agreed there is no shame in finishing distant runners-up to Pep Guardiola’s side. What’s more, given United’s distinctly average league record since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his stopwatch and chewing gum, there is also every reason to give them credit for the progress they have made this term should they hold off Liverpool and Tottenham to earn the silver-medal spot.
It is a point Jose Mourinho was keen to stress recently.
“Manchester City is not important for me,” the United boss said. “Important for me is that since the moment we left the first position and went to second, we stayed there for the whole season. We deserve to feel second in spite of what you can say, the critics you make, you all say the third, fourth, fifth, sixth are better than us but they are not better because we have more points.”
While their football has been far less swashbuckling than that of either Liverpool or Spurs, United deserve far more kudos than they have received for their league form. Sure, their early Champions League exit to Sevilla has conditioned some people’s views on them, but many had already made up their minds on United based solely on the fact they have not run City closer.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last,” says Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby in the comedy film Talladega Nights, and it is an adage by which most seem to want to judge United. But, just as Ricky’s father Reese claims later in the movie that the advice was passed on under the influence, the reality of United’s situation is far less clear-cut than win or bust. Second really is an achievement at this stage.
And most United supporters have been understanding of the circumstances to this point. While there were severe concerns with the whimpering European exit, the league form has been less of a bone of contention. The majority at the Theatre of Dreams have stuck by Mourinho despite the pelters coming from outside and some internal gripes over the style of football, with the signs of progress being enough to placate them thus far.
But next season will be a different story. Next season will be Mourinho’s third in charge at Old Trafford, and marks the final term of his initial three-year deal which was extended in January this year. There was an expectation from all quarters that by the summer of 2019 he will have got United back to fighting weight, and he will have run out of excuses and caveats by that time.
At some point his rebuilding has to lead somewhere. While he continues to work with a squad which is a mish-mash of several different visions, he can blame nobody but himself if he cannot mould them into a true challenger within three years. While it took Sir Alex four years to even secure an FA Cup and a further three to finally pocket a league championship, Mourinho is working in a more immediate age and was brought in entirely because of his success rate in just such a position.
If he has a problem with Luke Shaw, he needs to sell and replace him. If he cannot get his midfield working in unison, he needs to make the alterations necessary to find the harmony needed.
Whatever resources he has by year three, he should have enough to his liking to make a go of this job, particularly since more money will inevitably be spent in the summer.
Two years was never going to be enough for him to iron out all of the issues existing at Old Trafford, but it is on him next term if United are well adrift once more. They need to at least make a fight of it third time around.
It is right that we laud City first and foremost. Even the reddest of reds must acknowledge that there was never really any hope of staying with them.
They are about to become the worthy kings of England, whether it be at the Etihad on Saturday or in the weeks to come. It is more about their consistent magnificence than United’s shortcomings that there has been no real tussle for the top spot this term.
But as of August, there can be no more sitting back and applauding the spectacle across the city. Listening to another blaring party across the way in 12 months’ time will not be acceptable to anyone.
United need to get their house in order before the good will on the terraces runs out in a hurry.