2023-24 FIRST HALF : RAISE THE DRAGON BANNER
If anyone thought Mauricio Pochettino was going to rest on his laurels and cruise through this season, they were dead wrong. Winning the Champions League and Premier League has only put more pressure on the team to perform and Pochettino was focused like a laser on marginal improvements. Even with a number of very good players leaving there is a belief within the club that the team will be even better, faster, and brutal to score against.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW
Manchester United (England)
RB Leipzig (Germany)
Shakhtar Donetsk (Russia)
Pochettino had a big smile for the Champions League draw, not just because they landed the easiest group but also because the competition was thrown into some really difficult ones. After the season United had last year they are solid favorites to repeat and breeze through their group. RB Leipzig won’t just lay down and the travel to Shakhtar Donetsk will probably be the worst part of facing them. Just about all of the other groups are absolute brutality, getting an easy group this year looks like a major boost. Spurs (PSG, Vitesse, Young Boys), Arsenal (RB Salzburg, Zenit, Legia Warszawa), and Liverpool (Lyon, Porto, Fenerbahçe) all get groups they can win or advance from, but Chelsea (Juventus, Valencia, Bayer 04 Leverkusen) were not so lucky. Chelsea fans certainly felt hard done, but they are lucky to have avoided Group B (Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Benfica), Group D (Real Madrid, Lazio, Ajax, Dynamo Kyiv), or Group G (Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Celtic). Is it possible to have three groups of death?
MATCH(ES) OF THE FIRST HALF
Premier League (A) : Brentford 2 - Manchester United 4
This game was notable for good and bad reasons. It was good to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back in the Premier League, this time managing Brentford, and the healthy crowd of away fans gave him a warm welcome. The bad reason was giving up (2) goals to a Brentford side that was more likely to lose 10-0 than score against a team utterly destroying everyone they played. For (59) shining minutes it was looking like Solskjaer was going to get one over on his old team.
Brentford struck first just 4’ into the game when youngster Ashley Beasant scored on an atrocious error by David De Gea. De Gea would bring the ball up to the top of the box and attempt a pass to Florentino Luís in the midfield, but Beasant slipped in and snagged the ball at a near sprint. With Dayot Upamecano and Jean-Clair Todibo set up wide and De Gea nearly at the arc Beasant had an open goal and didn’t miss. They would give back that miracle with a penalty, and then Mason Greenwood would make it 2-1 at 26’ in a game much more frenetic than anyone could have predicted. When Ethan Pinnock headed in a corner to pull things even it was the first time all season that United had allowed more than (1) goal.
Brentford played tough in the second half, Solskjaer’s switch to a 4-1-2-3 for this game was paying off, but it was getting clearer that United were taking command. The balance of possession was rapidly tipping to United and when Greenwood scored again at 59’ things collapsed for the hosts. Ousmane Dembélé would make it 4-2 in stoppage time and Pochettino would escape with yet another win my more than (1) goal.
Premier League (A) : Arsenal 1 - Manchester United 1
Of course, it had to be Arsenal, and in the most petty way possible this game was a true delight for Gooners all over. After becoming the New Invincibles in the 2021-22 season it was starting to look like Pochettino was going to improve on that record of invincibility with a (38) win season. The weekly beatings of everyone, in the Premier League and the Champions League, made a perfect season seem possible if not likely. Unai Emery, who has managed to weather the storm at Arsenal since winning the league in 2019-20, was not particularly perturbed by the prospect of losing.
“I like our chances, they are a good side but we are at home. We are confident, nobody is going to lay down for them” said Emery prior to the game. He survived finishing 6th just two years after winning the league, he could manage this game.
Arsenal came out in a 5-3-2 with an attempt to halt United’s usual dominance on the wings. Kieran Tierney and Dani Carvajal would be tasked with slowing down Jorge and Álvaro Odriozola along with making it hard to connect with Jadon Sancho and Ousmane Dembélé. The addition of (3) midfielders also helped clog things up and once Arsenal got the ball they were good at keeping it, in a rare occurrence Arsenal were able to out-possess United and skirt some of their aggressive press in the process. Emery also got a boost just after the half when Bruno Fernandes injured his foot when Adrien Rabiot stepped on it, 50’ in an Pochettino was replacing his offensive engine with Andrès Landman.
In a deliciously ironic reversal of fortunes Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would finally put the game in United’s hands with an 89’ goal that appeared to put the game away. As stoppage time ticked down and United did their best to salt the game away Suso found an opening to ruin United’s day. Tierney snagged a bad throw in and passed it on to Joe Willock who booted it down the middle of the field for a Route One special that found Suso a few solid strides beyond the United back line. No flags went up, though Pochettino and his staff could be seen charging the technical area in protest, and Suso managed to slip the ball by with De Gea just barely getting a finger on it. It’s hard to feel bad about an 18-1-0 record, but the Gunners were celebrating like they had just won the league again.
ARSENAL GET THE LAST LAUGH
Manchester United punched the world in the face right out of the gate and never stopped punching. Maybe someone said something bad about Pochettino’s mother, maybe the squad just wanted to light the world on fire, everyone who set foot on the field felt the wrath of United for a full 90’ on a weekly basis. It wasn’t just the wins, it was the regular 6-0 beatings that often looked like they could get worse at the drop of a hat.
Rolling into December 20th, against Arsenal, United were riding a (30) game win streak and an (84) game unbeaten run. Fueling that win streak during the first half were (84) league goals to only (6) allowed, doesn’t take much to see that is a great way to beat everyone. United walked into the season as heavy favorites and by the Arsenal fixture most outlets had already crowned United winners, there was a lot more talk about who would finish 2-4 than who could catch United. The draw with Arsenal would snap that win streak on the last game of the first half, the media made a bigger deal of it than United as Pochettino was still focused on finishing out the season.
Part of the problem for the league was that everyone busted their nut last year and financial austerity appeared to be in vogue. Liverpool, who were in an outright arms race with the biggest clubs in the world, curled up into a ball and only spent £45M on Mohamed Ihatteran from PSV. United were reportedly interested in the Dutch international, but just didn’t have a spot for him at the asking price (which was rumored to be upwards of £75M at one point). PSV lost out on that one, but the fact that Liverpool’s answer to being crushed by the greatest English team of all time was to buy one player didn’t put Thomas Tuchel in a good place. In Tuchel’s case, the club left him in a position to fail and they sacked him in November and replaced him with Schalke’s Andrey Tokhonov. Nobody wanted to invest the necessary funds to go toe to toe with the beast Pochettino has created, the first half of this season was an excellent example why.
On a personal level the team was incredibly focused on repeating, very few problems bubbled up between players and Pochettino with a shocking lack of new contract demands. The most notable drama was Renato Leonidas, an English citizen, exercising his dual-citizenship by selecting Seleção over the Three Lions. Who knew a bench LB could generate so much outrage among English fans, he got all the heat for it while Gareth Southgate managed to escape unscathed. The furor probably died down once people started to notice the incredible season Jadon Sancho was having. Sancho must have gone back and watched Athony Martial’s starts from last year because he has absolutely mastered the back post, the connection between Dembélé and Odriozola has turned into (16) goals and a starting spot for England.
FIRST HALF AWARDS & PLAUDITS
It finally happened, Manchester United’s first Ballon d’Or winner since Ronaldo in 2008 is Bruno Fernandes. Maybe it was appropriate that it would be a Portuguese player as Fernandes takes over the international side, this time United’s winner is likely to stay around for a while. Fernandes put together one amazing first half, (14) goals and (22) assists with 8.36 rating, and when taken together with the last half of last year it couldn’t be anyone but him. Scoring (17) goals with (33) assists and an 8.16 rating is a great way to bring home the biggest individual award possible. The Ronaldo-Messi monopoly on the award was finally broken in 2022, and Kylian Mbappé isn’t going anywhere, he isn’t a lock as the best player in the world right now so Fernandes is going to need to work hard to keep the trophy. He will see competition from his own roster as Sancho finished 3rd in the voting behind Mbappé, maybe United can keep the trophy in Manchester even if Fernandes doesn’t win again.
FIFA Ballon d’Or : Bruno Fernandes
FIFA Best Player : Bruno Fernandes
FIFPro Player Of The Year : Bruno Fernandes
FIFA U21 Player Of The Year : Albin Elmander - (17) goals, 8.10 rating
FIFA GK Of The Year : David De Gea
European Golden Boy : Albin Elmander
Serbian FA Player Of The Year : Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
No surprises here, a first half full of wins came with very few serious injuries. The team went all the way into November before someone went down with an injury for more than a few days and it turned out to be an annoying one for Pochettino. Edward Wessex would sprain his ankle on U21 England duty in a game against Denmark, the injury would keep him out for (4) weeks and put some pressure on Pochettino to keep his remaining RB healthy. The right side of the field had more issues when Ousmane Kanté pulled his thigh in December, knocking him out for a week and forcing him to miss the Carabao Cup Quarterfinal against Watford. The final injury of the first half seemed big, but the timing ended up being perfect, Bruno Fernandes would miss (2) weeks after hurting his foot against Arsenal. The January break worked out in his favor and he didn’t miss a scheduled start, he had plenty of time to enjoy his Ballon d’Or win.