The most depressing day of the Premier League season so far? If you’re a Manchester United fan, it has to be Oct. 6, 2018. That’s when Newcastle — a team under Rafa Benitez who organizes his players as if they were preparing to defend against Thanos — went up 2-0 in the first 10 mintues at Old Trafford. If that was surprising, what followed was the real shock: Jose Mourinho’s men staged a 3-2 comeback with second-half goals from Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and, in the 90th minute, a guy named Alexis Sanchez who, legend has it, used to find the back of the net regularly.
Awesome, right? If they’d been under the charge of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at that point in the season, think of the feel-good possibilities — the team could have mounted a comeback even greater than when they overcame a 12-point lead by Kevin Keagan’s Newcastle to win it all in 1995-96.
Instead, it was a false dawn, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blip that would prolong the malaise and madness that had infected Manchester United under the Not-So-Special-One-Anymore.
Remember, the comeback against Newcastle came after a string of abject results: a 1-1 draw against Wolves in the Premier League, exiting the Carabao Cup on penalties to Frank Lampard’s Derby, an embarrassing 3-1 loss to West Ham and a scoreless, drab Champions League draw at home to Valencia. If United had lost to Newcastle that day, they would have had 10 points from eight games and been nine points behind Manchester City.
Grim, to say the least. The players were putting in about as much effort as The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Mourinho continued to live out of a hotel in Manchester in between grumpy appearances at news conferences, an ongoing war with the team’s best player, Paul Pogba (among others) and a soporific brand of football that was threatening to put Ambien out of business. But there was hope: If Mourinho lost against Newcastle, reports at the time suggested that United would sack him and bring in Solskjaer to finish the season.
Then United staged that damn comeback. It was like being in a horrible relationship: months of misery punctuated by one nice night out during which you reminisce about the good times before the squabbling and heartbreak ruined everything.
With a stay of execution, Mourinho wasted precious little time to start letting supporters down again, a stretch in which they dropped points against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Arsenal (a team mired in their own brand of misery) before the nadir: getting schooled by Liverpool at Anfield, a 3-1 scoreline that actually flattered United.
Finally, mercifully, United sent Mourinho on gardening leave, at which point they had 26 points from 17 games and were 19 points behind Liverpool and 18 behind City.
Unfortunately, the sacking happened two months too late. Solskjaer, formerly United’s Baby-Faced Assassin, returned to Old Trafford as interim manager and, like a human defibrillator, immediately jump-started United’s moribund campaign.
But imagine if the owners, the Glazers, booted Mourinho after the Newcastle game? These are the kind of questions that crop up in the bitter watches of the night, when your thoughts ping-pong between the dark recesses of your mind and flights of fancy. And sure, it’s unrealistic to expect that the Glazers would have axed Mourinho before the start of the season. After all, he guided United to a second-place finish, even if the gulf in class (and points) with Manchester City made it arguably the most unsatisfying runner-up finish ever, all empty calories and no substance. But that Newcastle game — there was the club’s chance to renew their title-winning credentials … or at least not be a running punchline.
You heard me right, and I can hear some of you laughing as I write this — and, fair enough, I’m not really being serious.
City and Liverpool have better squads, while Spurs are chugging along without the injured Dele Alli and Harry Kane before, inevitably, they Spurs things up.
But look at United’s stats this season again: Under Mourinho, 26 points in 17 games; under Solskjaer, 25 points in 9 games. It doesn’t take Alan Turing to figure out that if Solskjaer kept up that pace from October, Manchester United would be in with a shout for top honors — certainly as much as Tottenham — and they would not be sweating the prospect of finishing outside of the top 4 and missing out on the Champions League next season.
“Ole’s at the wheel, tell me how does it feel,” the fans sing.Ole, it sure does feel great.
Of course, United suffered a reality check against PSG in the Champions League before rebounding to beat Chelsea in the FA Cup. It’s been a delight to watch the team play aggressive, pleasing football and gobble up points like Pac-Man on Adderall. The squad remains thin, Alexis Sanchez is still Alexis Sanchez, the defense is one Phil Jones fail from doom, and Chelsea and Arsenal are still breathing down their back to finish fourth.
That’s the ultimate rub, isn’t it? We could be sitting here in May with United in fifth, or even sixth position. Under the Not-So-Special-One-Anymore, the bar had been set so low that Warwick Davis would break his back trying to limbo underneath it. By contrast, Solskjaer has fans dreaming again. Put another way: To fall short of the top 4 under Mourinho was a fait accompli; to do so under Solskjaer would feel like a sucker punch.