Manchester United manager José Mourinho told his players to give their shirts to the travelling supporters following Saturday’s 2-0 win at West Brom, calling it an early Christmas present. The true gift for the faithful fans, though, has surely been the side’s resurgence in recent weeks.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his tenth and eleventh league goals of the season as the Red Devils cruised to a 2-0 victory at The Hawthorns, and it would appear that Mourinho finally has an idea of how to get the best out of his side.
United are now ten games unbeaten in all competitions and closing the gap on the top four, although Mourinho’s old club Chelsea are pulling away at the top of the table, sitting 13 points ahead of United.
Ibrahimovic was a great signing on a free transfer from PSG and, despite his age of 35, it should be no surprise that he is performing at the levels he currently is. Also, as Paul Pogba is the world’s most expensive player, his improving performances should be expected. It is actually the players that started the season on the peripheries of the squad that have been the most influential to the side’s upturn in fortunes.
Mourinho started the season with Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind as his three favoured choices to combine and create a central defensive pairing. With injury having ruled Smalling and Bailly out of games recently, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have - somewhat surprisingly - taken up the challenge and provided a solid foundation for United to build on.
When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Jones from Blackburn for £16.5m in 2011, he was being compared with Chelsea skipper John Terry. However, his five years with the club have been overshadowed by injury problems and constant speculation that he would be sold to a smaller club as he has failed to reach his potential.
On current form, though, Jones could prove to be a crucial member of the side this season, and his willingness to thrown his body in the way of the ball and battle with all manner of centre forwards has placed him firmly in Mourinho’s plans.
The Portuguese is known for appreciating toughness in his defensive players, and was extremely successful in basing his Chelsea side around Terry.
But if Jones’ excellence has taken some by surprise, it has been a welcome sight for most associated with the club to see Michael Carrick back involved. His range of passing and composure on the ball has long been underrated. Ferguson was a big admirer of Carrick - so much so that he was willing to spend £18m to bring him to Old Trafford over 10 years ago.
In recent times, he has been on the verge of being phased out - by David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho - but he has risen from the sidelines once more and shown his class.
With captain Wayne Rooney finding himself on the bench more often than he has ever been used to, vice-captain Carrick has led the team in style, dictating the play and keeping things simple in the middle of the park. Coupled with a change in formation that sees United using three midfielders, Carrick’s involvement has allowed Pogba to flourish in his role.
The West Ham youth academy product has played 34 times for England, but you could argue that he deserves many more caps when you consider his footballing brain and ability. A fan favourite in Manchester, Carrick’s influence has never been underestimated by the supporters and they will be over the moon to see him back involved, and keeping the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin out of the side in the process.
His partner in the middle has been Ander Herrera, a brilliant player with an aggressive streak. As Carrick ages, he struggles to cover the ground he once could, but Herrera is always there to help him out and link the defence and attack.
United started the season with Pogba alongside Marouane Fellaini, but Herrera and Carrick have forced their way into the side and they look much more balanced because of it.
As the season has progressed, United have developed a steel that is synonymous with Mourinho sides of past, and they are playing with a passion that has been somewhat absent over the past three seasons since they won the title in Fergie’s farewell campaign.
Mourinho has tinkered with the side several times this season but looks to be getting closer to a team created in his own image. He has suggested it will take him “two or three” more transfer windows to perfect the squad, but after three successive league wins, it looks like he is getting somewhere with what he has at his disposal.