Manchester United continue to infuriate - Mourinho must raise standards
LONDON -- Mauricio Pochettino says Tottenham Hotspur must start next season strongly if they are going to challenge for the Premier League title.
Pochettino's side have been the best team in the league since the turn of the year for the third consecutive season, and a 14-game unbeaten run ended on Saturday by Manchester City, who were crowned league champions the following day when Manchester United lost to West Bromwich Albion.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.
Well, that was grim wasn't it? Manchester United's 1-0 defeat to West Brom may have provided a highlight for downtrodden Baggies' fans, but it was comparable with United 0-1 West Brom in 2015 or United 1-2 West Brom in 2013. Or United 0-0 West Brom in 2017.
Their record at Old Trafford in the post Sir Alex Ferguson years is as good as Manchester City's, the team they help win the title on Sunday. Despite their struggles, the Baggies have won three, drawn one and lost only once in their last five at Old Trafford. They have lost their last 14 games against City.
At least West Brom won't be around next season to win at Old Trafford, but the team which had won only once since August are the type of side title contenders should be beating out of sight, not tripping up against at home.
The October 2013 defeat to the Baggies was the first time I thought "United are in serious trouble here under David Moyes." The word from within Old Trafford was that the team were already deeply unhappy.
Even though West Brom parked several buses and were fortunate, their 1-0 victory in May 2015 was the first time United had lost three consecutive league games since 2001 as Louis van Gaal's side finished his first season poorly. The serious doubts about him and his overly cautious style of football started -- and they never stopped.
Unwittingly, games against West Brom have been a microcosm of what's wrong with United, including this season when the Reds keep tripping themselves up. Once again, just as the team seem to be on the cusp of a breakthrough, there's a setback. It has been the story of 2017-18. Beat Liverpool at home ... then flop at home to Sevilla. Beat City stormingly away ... then don't turn up at home to the league's bottom team.
Defeat is a part of football and Jose Mourinho knew that when he walked along the side of the pitch in the rain with his head held high after Sunday's loss, but United's stutterings have been infuriating this term. Mourinho's first defeat this season was by Huddersfield, who had gone six league games without a win. Newcastle United hadn't won a home game since October when they beat United in February.
Defeats to Chelsea and City are easier to explain. United are banned from doing anything but losing at Stamford Bridge under the unwritten law which also forbids United to do anything other than get hammered when they play Tottenham away, one the Reds have faithfully abided by in recent seasons, including this January. This only applies for league games, however, so the team will be fine this Saturday in the FA Cup semifinal against Tottenham at Wembley.
Champions City are better than United and deserved December's 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Champions City -- say it enough times and it starts to sound like a discount mall -- are, it goes without saying, the team United need to surpass next season.
Mourinho has made improvements and deserves that third season in charge, but there will be serious questions asked if United are 16 points behind their noisy neighbours in a year.
There's considerable patience among United fans and Mourinho is still backed by the vast majority, but he asked to be judged after three years and it's not unfair to judge him, his team and his players after 150 games. You don't get three years to build at most football clubs, but the Portuguese has been given lavish funds to buy big name signings. Four of the five defenders against West Brom may have been brought to the club by Ferguson, but next season it will be Mourinho's men with no excuses and no Barcelona to nip in to nick his best players, as Liverpool have had.
Mourinho has largely done well and had surprised many by using so many young players. He has a very good squad, but he needs to get more from it. Paul Pogba needs to significantly improve, as does Alexis Sanchez. Both look like they've regressed since joining, while every City player -- according to my mates who go to watch them every week, for I don't -- has improved under Pep Guardiola.
United's central defence needs to be more settled; the left-back position needs sorting. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford need to be more consistent. Rashford should still be given time -- he's only 20 -- and Martial is only 22, but he has had three seasons at Old Trafford now. It's true they can't play all the time, that the arrival of Sanchez did neither any favours, but we're in April and Rashford has six league goals and isn't trusted to be an effective understudy to the ever-present Romelu Lukaku. Rashford has started only 14 league games, Martial 16.
There are positives: individual -- David De Gea (again) and Lukaku -- but also collective ones. City, Chelsea and Liverpool have all been beaten in recent months. Arsenal were beaten 3-1 away in a thrilling match in December. There have been many entertaining United games this season to counter the bore fest served up on Sunday.
The form has been good in 2018 and the team already have more points than in any season post 2013, but we all know that's not how United will be judged. It's already a scandal the world's biggest football club have only reached Europe's last eight once in the last seven years.
City have blown everyone away this season, but it was still amusing to see United win last week and prevent them winning the title in their own stadium. Amusing too to see cringe-worthy celebratory adverts around social media from City's sponsors or footage of a handful of fans rushing to their stadium to celebrate, but City boast a very effective football team under an outstanding manager.
United have to better them and if they can't do it in the Premier League, they have to be successful in Europe. Finishing second and only reaching the round of 16 will not cut it next term.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.