By Simon Evans
Eight goals scored, none conceded and six points in the bag – it has been the perfect start to the season for Manchester United and they have rightly earned plenty of praise.
But before they are anointed champions-elect in August, it is surely worth asking whether or not the big question marks about Jose Mourinho’s squad have truly been answered in 4-0 wins over West Ham and Swansea?
No-one ever doubted that United, once they had signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton, would be more potent in attack and indeed his three goals in two games has confirmed that.
With Marcus Rashford’s pace a threat down the left and Anthony Martial scoring in both his substitute appearances, Mourinho’s men certainly are proving to be a goal threat.
If the reports are accurate that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is making rapid progress in his return from a knee injury and is set to sign a new contract with club, United will have plenty of options in the forward areas.
Likewise the signing of Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic has given extra bite, solidity and balance to the United midfield and some extra protection to the back-line.
Last season United drew ten games at home – many of them matches they would have been expected to win – and this start suggests a repeat of those frustrations is less likely this time around.
But, looking at the fixture list, which has been kind to United in early season encounters, perhaps judgment should be delayed a little.
In October, United will finally face teams who finished above them in the league last season with a trip to Liverpool and a visit from Tottenham Hotspur at the end of the month. A week later, they are away to champions Chelsea on Nov. 5.
One of the big question marks about United has been their defence where Mourinho has yet to find a fixed partner for Eric Bailly.
Swedish defender Victor Lindelof was supposed to be that man but he has made a slow start to life at Old Trafford and Mourinho is currently preferring Phil Jones.
Is the United defence, with Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind at full-backs, tight enough to win a championship? We can’t really judge that from wins over West Ham and Swansea.
Furthermore, no-one ever doubted that Lukaku could stick goals past those sort of opponents but will he be able to deliver in those crunch matches?
His record last season certainly raises the question – of his 25 goals for Everton, 21 came against the bottom 13 teams in the league.
Indeed, in his career, Lukaku has scored just one goal in 14 combined games against Chelsea and Tottenham.
Statistics can be misleading and in this case may reflect Everton’s inability to create chances for him against the top teams – but nonetheless the Belgian’s ability against the best remains a doubt to be assuaged.
The belief is also that Matic will enable Paul Pogba to thrive in a liberated, attacking role but while there are signs this might be happening, that theory also needs testing against the highest calibre of opponent.
Then there is the issue of United‘s mental strength.
Mourinho has used the word “confidence” a lot in recent days and his side certainly seem to have a swagger about them. But as the manager himself noted, it is easy to be positive when you are winning.
“The team is confident, the team starts the game confident, the team starts the second half confident. But I want to see the way we emotionally react to losing it because it’s also another stage – be losing and try to change a result because in this moment everything is going in our favour.
“You know, it’s not always motorway. You always find difficult roads and we have to be ready,” he said.
He also knows that his team have the extra burden of a Champions League campaign starting next month.
While United had continental duties last year, when they won the Europa League, the demands of the Champions League, even in the group stage, are significantly more testing.
Mourinho has not yet had to rest players and rotate his squad – in other words the depth of his options, again good on paper, has not yet truly been challenged.
While the pundits may be making instant evaluations, the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager has been around too long to fall for the trap of believing the hype.
As he put it after the win at Swansea:
“This time last season we had six points from our first two games and we finished sixth. This start means nothing.”