Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho tried his best to dress it up as a productive festive period. His side had bounced back from a shock League Cup defeat to Bristol City by emerging apparently unscathed in the proceeding seven days that brought with them three matches.
The performances were good, he insisted. “I think when we played our last two matches at home” – draws against Burnley and Southampton, which directly followed one at Leicester.
They just hadn’t had the rub of the green. “Unlucky decisions,” Mourinho explained. “You have to be biased against us to say that the penalty against [Manchester] City and Leicester and Southampton were not penalties.”
Then there were the injuries. “The boys are trying,” Mourinho fired back at his critics. “We have lots of problems. We lost Lukaku, we lost Ibrahimovic for a month… I don’t remember the last time [Marouane] Fellaini played.”
Still, United had won just three points, leaving leaders City to move a further four clear at the top. In fact, every member of the Big Six made up points on United during that three-match period – Chelsea and Liverpool won an extra four, Tottenham three and Arsenal two.
With a general acceptance that it will take the combination of an unprecedented collapse and complete miracle for anyone to catch runaway leaders City, the other five clubs at the Premier League’s top table are scrapping desperately for UEFA Champions League qualification.
So as Mourinho and United arrived at Goodison Park this week to face a resurgent Everton, transformed under new manager Sam Allardyce, Mourinho knew only three points would offer suitable explanation in his post-match interview on Merseyside.
Paul Pogba reacted to recent media criticism with a stunning virtuoso performance in midfield, but it was Jesse Lingard who stole the show, galloping through the Everton defence before firing a spectacular, curling shot past Jordan Pickford to secure a much-needed 2-0 win.
Lingard had already come to his side’s rescue against Burnley, arriving from the bench to strike twice and rescue his side from 0-2 down at Old Trafford.
And on New Year’s Day he was at it again. The England international has now been involved in 11 PL goals this season (seven goals, four assists) and has averaged a goal involvement every 84 minutes.
Only Lukaku (15) has scored more goals for Man Utd in all competitions this season than Lingard (10). And while United, who arrived in December with a 100% record at home, saw that month become the start of their untimely stumble, the 25-year-old has stepped up at a time when all around him were faltering.
Indeed, since the start of December, only Harry Kane (eight) has scored more Premier League goals than Lingard (six).
He was deservedly named in Opta’s Team of the Week and scored 89/100 in the Goal Pressure Index, presented by Sure, on a matchday that saw United claim back two points on both Chelsea and Arsenal.
“I think Jesse is making that jump,” said Mourinho. “I think he is going in a good direction.” Jesse’s got Manchester United going in the right direction, too.