2025-26 FIRST HALF : GROUP OF DEATH
Last season seemed like the kind of year you could never top, but Mauricio Pochettino seems to have conjured up the kind of squad that just keeps improving. Even beyond a perfect first half to the season a surprise individual performance would set up a chance to shatter records and become yet another club Legend.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW
Manchester United (England)
Real Madrid (Spain)
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany)
Ye Football Gods be cruel, Pochettino will not be able to walk through the Champions League group stage this year. Despite still being heavily favored a bad run of fixtures could put United in a bad spot with this group, there won’t be a single game off with everyone in the group having a chance at moving on. Real Madrid are the favorites to finish second but a bad break could have them out of the competition. Tottenham’s reward for a good season is a similarly brutal group with PSG, Borussia Dortmund, and Fenerbahçe. Arsenal (AC Milan, AS Monaco, Dinamo Zagreb) and Manchester City (VfL Wolfsburg, Ajax, Celtic) are favorites to win their group with Arsenal having the biggest challenge.
United’s draw does have some good storylines with former United midfielder Angel Gomes now at Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Gomes continues to have a strong relationship with Mason Greenwood, so having both of them on the field should be fun.
MATCH(ES) OF THE FIRST HALF
Premier League (H) : Manchester United 8 - Manchester City 0
The first half of the season was full of big wins over big rivals, a 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield really set the tone and things only got worse for everyone else from there. Arsenal (4-1) and Jürgen Klopp’s Spurs (6-0) all fell victim to Pochettino’s ways, but this game was a serious statement game. Massimiliano Allegri’s tenure at Manchester City would hit a nadir in this game, making United’s “noisy neighbors” look more like a Championship side and further cementing United’s status as the best team in the world.
It’s hard to really pinpoint a single issue in an 8-0 beating, the loss was so comprehensive it was more like an excellent game by United combined with a bad game from City. Allegri went with a fairly defensive formation, a 5-3-2 with a defensive midfielder deep, but it managed to achieve the complete opposite and hamstrung City on offense. King Holland scored first at 6’ and the remaining 84’+ turned into an utter blood bath that had light blue clad fans heading for the exit at halftime down 5-0. United didn’t allow a single shot all game, City’s offense died time and time again in the midfield with Dominik Szoboszlai and Houssem Aouar looking lost. The shots allowed stat isn’t that new for United, but what made it most startling was the roughly even possession. The back three and wingbacks helped City hold possession deep, but they ended up dwelling on the ball or starting very deep in their end after a failed United attack.
Time to rethink Allegri?
Champions League (A) : Real Madrid 2 - Manchester United 3
Santiago Bernabéu would play host to quite a spectacle in Champions League group play. So much for the Group of Death, Pochettino’s side would go through Group H like a hot knife through butter. Bayer 04 Leverkusen (5-0), Lazio (3-0), and Real Madrid (5-0) would surrender (13) goals without scoring once themselves and Michael Laudrup would head into this game needing a win to quiet the calls for his head. A third place finish in La Liga last year wasn’t helping the situation, even a substantial injury turned out to be little to no advantage with United losing Mason Greenwood just before their previous fixture. Greenwood would suffer a broken leg on England duty a little over a week before the game, Marco Overmars would suddenly find himself Pochettino’s top striker with a solid push into the deep end of European football and a stunning double in their 5-0 beating at Old Trafford.
The bad news would keep coming for Laudrup as the Greenwood injury would rapidly vanish in the rear view mirror, Overmars would top his double against Real Madrid with a mind-blowing (4) goals against Brighton & Hove Albion to ascend from Wonder Kid to Fan Favorite. The Bernabéu is not Old Trafford, and Brighton & Hove Albion weren’t walking through the tunnel today, Pochettino would miss the clinical finishing of Greenwood but in the end defending would be the biggest issue. Jadon Sancho would get things going just 10’ into the game with a wonderful overlap thanks to Lancaster French. French would cut inside with the ball, heading for the penalty spot and collapsing the central defense and play a cheeky backheel to Sancho looping behind him for an easy shot at a goal that Thibaut Courtois had left mostly open to stand on the right post. Real Madrid did their best to hold on, and keeping the score 1-0 was a victory considering the outcome of their first meeting. At 38’ former United youngster Cho Jung-Bin would beat French to a loose ball after Dayot Upamecano failed to head a cross into the box clear. The header would float perfectly over De Gea and into the upper corner on the opposite side, there was no way De Gea could have stopped it short of being a hand taller.
After pulling level Laudrup had Real Madrid press hard and high, giving United the kind of trouble at the back they tend to cause against the opponents. Upamecano and Jean-Clair Todibo struggled to move with the ball, often passing it off quickly only for their target to be pinned in as well. This approach burned Real Madrid first at 43’ with a failed press at the back opening the door for a United counter attack. Ousmane Dembélé would find Overmars streaking by three Real Madrid defenders for an easy goal, but as he peeled off to celebrate the 2-1 lead a call for VAR left United’s fans whistling. Pochettino joined the chorus when Overmars was ruled offside to send the teams into the break level at 1-1.
Just a few minutes after the half at 45’ Overmars was right back at it, starting at Dembélé again and ending with a header off a Holland cross the Dutch striker would reclaim the 2-1 lead with no VAR to spoil it. At 55’ United opened the door again with a poor attempt to clear the ball. A hopeful cross into the box by Juan Manuel Vilches would sail over all the Real Madrid attackers and find French at the back post. French’s sad attempt at heading it clear just put the ball right at the feet of Róber on the right who set up a great cross from Gedson Fernandes back to Vilches on the left. The confusion at the back made it easy for Vilches to beat De Gea to the left post and suddenly it was 2-2 with the hosts holding the momentum. Things evened out but the hosts started to get tired near the end of the game with Laudrup using all his substitutes on defense, but Overmars would not be denied. The man who seemed trapped behind Luís Nazário was turning into an assassin on the biggest stage, with stoppage time coming to a close Overmars would once again team up with Dembélé to sneak the ball into the far corner off the post for a crushing goal. The goal would be Overmars’ 18th on the season and clinch a 3-2 win, likely winning the group for United.
OVERMARS CATCHES A BREAK & RISE OF DEMBÉLÉ
A number of things went down at United that are starting to become mundane. The team finished the first half with a perfect record, just about crushing everyone they faced while allowing a miserly (4) goals in all competitions. Half of those came in the 3-2 win over Real Madrid, but this was starting to become commonplace under Pochettino. The big story of the first half turned out to be the Greenwood-Overmars situation. When Greenwood broke his leg in a game against Sweden on England duty things seemed very bleak on the striker front. Overmars was highly rated, but nobody assumed he could take Greenwood’s place and his substitute for the second squad (Valentin Martinique) was definitely in over his head. Overmars did not get the memo. Overmars would log (34) total goals in the first half in just (16) games, most of them coming after the Greenwood injury in October. His (21) league goals in (10) games would put him (9) clear of Liverpool’s Sergey Kuleshov and his rate of (2.1) would more than double Harry Kane’s record of (0.97) if he could keep it up. Overmars would be on pace for (42) league goals, and absolutely astounding total for a player who started the year as a backup.
The story that flew under the radar a bit, though Jadon Sancho did plenty to get noticed, was the steady rise of Ousmane Dembélé. Sancho finished second on the team with (14) goals to go with (8) assists, but the level of consistency Dembélé has achieved since his tumultuous days at Barcelona is impressive. There were some sneers when Dembélé was handed the #7 shirt upon his arrival but since then he has logged double digit goals and assists every year aside from the 2022-23 season, when he missed quite a bit of time to injuries, and his average rating has slowly ticked up to over 8.00. His defensive contributions have been key as as he ages he continues to grow as a savvy defender on the wing. Dembélé is probably never going to be as flashy as Bruno Fernandes or Overmars, but his level of play really helped United take a (27) game winning streak in the Premier League through the first half.
FIRST HALF AWARDS & PLAUDITS
The only thing that broke up the Overmars fanfare was Manchester United adding another Ballon d’Or winner to take the award three years in a row. Bruno Fernandes would take his crown back from Danny Ginger to join the two-time winner club. Franz Beckenbauer, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Kevin Keegan, Ronaldo, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are quite the names to be listed next to as Fernandes further cements his status as a United Legend. Kylian Mbappé and Jadon Sancho would finish just behind Fernandes, with Sancho getting used to finishing third behind his teammate when Fernandes also took FIFA’s Best Player award. The weirdest twist to the awards season was Owen Flowers topping David De Gea and Marc-André ter Stegen for FIFA GK of the Year. The most expected award winner was Marco Overmars, he would land the European Golden Boy by a wide margin along with the FIFA U21 Player of the Year.
FIFPro Team Of The Year
FIFA Ballon d’Or : Bruno Fernandes - (23) goals, (34) assists, 8.43 rating (BEATS Mbappe & Sancho)
FIFA Best Player : Bruno Fernandes
FIFPro Player Of The Year : Bruno Fernandes
FIFA U21 Player Of The Year : Marco Overmars - (35) goals, (2) assists, 8.34 rating
FIFA GK Of The Year : Owen Flowers (beats De Gea and ter Stegen)
European Golden Boy : Marco Overmars
French PoY : Ousmane Dembélé - (19) goals, (16) assists, 8.07
Outside of the major injury, which we will get to again, Pochettino had yet another great year in terms of health. August only saw youngster Kasim Pasha miss (2) weeks with a pulled thigh before September hit hardest in terms of numbers. Jadon Sancho would suffer a pulled hamstring on England duty, a running theme for this year, missing just (2) weeks including some of the international break. Ferdy van Velde would also pull a hamstring, but he would miss just a little more than a week. Florentino Luís would get the worst of the month with a pulled calf against Lazio, Pochettino would keep him out for a full (3) weeks just to be safe. October brought disaster, as mentioned previously, with Mason Greenwood breaking his fibula midway through a game against Sweden. He would be ruled out for 4-6 months, likely ending his season, and earning a battlefield promotion for French youngster Valentine Martinique. At the time it seemed like the sky was falling for United until Overmars turned into the next Marco van Basten.