The Red Devils find themselves in eighth in the Premier League table and are already 18 points behind league leaders Manchester City
Manchester United, treading water in the league with a goal difference of minus two after just 15 games. It seems unthinkable.
That’s, however, a reality that applies both to November 1986 and December 2018 but at least in ’86 it was a United side who had appointed a new manager and were just two games into what would be the greatest career in English football history.
In 2018, meanwhile, it always feels like we’re two games away from the current United boss becoming the third man to inadequately succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.
Hard as it is to recall, the last time Manchester United led in a Premier League game was for a few minutes of injury time away at Bournemouth more than a month ago. The much-vaunted assault on the top four looks like it has floundered before it even got started.
Last season Mourinho’s team were the best of the rest, albeit 19 points behind champions Manchester City. With less than half of this season played, City already have an advantage of 18 points over their local rivals and even the most optimistic of United fans will expect that to grow steadily over the next five months.
Ederson has had to make only 25 saves so far, while David De Gea has already let in 25 goals and Mourinho has made 21 changes to the starting XI in the last four Premier League games, shuffling his pack ever more furiously for a solution that seemingly isn’t there.
The 2-2 draw with Arsenal on Wednesday night means that United have already conceded more home goals this season than they did in the whole of last season. Worse still, only the teams in the bottom five have let in more goals than United’s 25, which itself is only three short of the entire total they conceded in 2017-18.
Jose Mourinho’s era-defining first season in English football in 2004-05 saw him shatter the free-form hegemony of Arsenal’s Invincibles with a Chelsea side who let in only 15 goals all season; United have leaked more than that since late September.
Opta’s xG model suggests that Manchester United have let in about four goals more than you would expect in 2018-19, a big change from last season where United and Burnley – and just look what’s happened to Sean Dyche’s team – both overperformed by around 13 goals each, considerably higher than any other side in the division.
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A regression to more realistic figures was on the cards for both teams this season but in United’s case it is harder to justify reality biting when the club have the highest wage bill in the division.
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Anthony Martial is possibly the only United player to have enhanced his reputation this season, scoring seven times for a team who have taken fewer shots than Crystal Palace and Fulham. Alexis Sanchez, meanwhile, has scored three goals in 2018, after netting 19 for Arsenal in both 2016 and 2017.
Next up is a home game with Fulham, a club whose last trip to Old Trafford saw David Moyes’s United sling in a Premier League record 81 crosses in a single game in a wholehearted but one-dimensional attempt to beat the Londoners.
Four-and-a-half years later, no one inside the Theatre of Dreams will be confident that they won’t witness such a lack of imagination once again.