It’s fair to say that Manchester United have fallen dramatically off the boil in recent weeks.
Jose Mourinho had the Old Trafford outfit purring as recently as early October and United fans had finally let themselves dream of Premier League glory once again, a full five years since they last celebrated such a feat.
A number of untimely injuries later, however, and United have slipped eight points back on their rampant city neighbours at the top of the league table.
While Mourinho has all but guided the Red Devils into the knock out stages of the Champions League, their league form has had something of a wobble.
Losing their first game of the season league newcomers Huddersfield, a lacklustre stalemate with Liverpool and another defeat at the hands of Chelsea has seen a gulf appear between the two Manchester clubs, both in terms of quality and league standings.
Perhaps the loss of Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury back in September has affected United more than fans originally thought it would.
Following his return to the club last season for a then world fee of somewhere in the region of £90 million, expectation was high among the United faithful.
Having achieved massive success with Juventus in Italy, it was hoped the same dominant and stylish football the former United academy graduate demonstrated in Serie A would quickly translate into success in the Premier League.
A mediocre first season, however, left fans feeling glum and many branded Pogba an expensive failure.
This term the 24-year-old began the season alongside new signing Nemanja Matic and quickly established himself as a pivotal part of Mourinho’s side. Offering a stable base in midfield and a steady stream of precision ball to the likes of Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial, Pogba was delivering on his expensive price tag.
In his absence, the supply lines have dwindled and so too have the goals, a fact emphasised by this stark set of statistics.
How much are Manchester United missing Paul Pogba?
— Sky Sports PL ? (@SkySportsPL) November 7, 2017
News, therefore, that the Frenchman is back training and looks set for a return to action later this month against Newcastle will give fans real hope that normal goal scoring service can be resumed.
They have had to watch the confidence of Romelu Lukaku slowly drain away to nothing in recent weeks and there is a fear now that it could take time for him to find the touch that propelled him to the top of the scoring tables earlier in the season.
There is no doubt that Pogba has brought something extra to the side this term. United perform better when he plays, it is that simple.
However, for a side that harbours ambitions of Premier League and European glory, it cannot rely on just one player to deliver. All great sides find a way to win despite adversity.
Were United to be judged on how they have dealt with Pogba’s absence to date, it would not be a positive report. As a team they have failed to adapt and overcome.
Yes, they remain second in the league table and can expect Champions League knockout football in the coming weeks and months but if they genuinely want to compete for silverware, they need to improve. Luckily there is still plenty of time.
All is not lost, therefore, and fans cannot lose sight of that fact. Catching the rampaging juggernaut that is Manchester City is going to be a serious challenge. Like every other title contender, they will need Pep Guardiola’s men to suffer a significant wobble in order to drag them back into the dog fight.
In the meantime, Mourinho and United need to get back to playing the offensive style of football that led to comparisons of the United of Ferguson era, when goal scoring was frequent and glorious.
The ‘park the bus’ mentality that has seeped into United’s recent performances needs to be disbanded quickly and the confident swagger emphatically reinstated.
Pogba’s return will certainly help with but each member of the squad, including Mourinho, have a responsibility to dust themselves off following a difficult October and show fans and opponents what they are made.
If they try and still fail then so be it. If they fail to try, however, well that’s just unforgivable.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we review last week’s FAI Cup final with former Cork City defender Derek Coughlan and look ahead to Ireland’s massive World Cup play-off against Denmark.