Jose Mourinho admitted after the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea last Sunday he was “worried” about the eight-point gap Manchester City have opened at the top of the table.
But not so worried, he said, as he would be if he was managing in Spain, Italy, Germany or France.
The inference was that, because of the unpredictability of the Premier League, eight points is not as commanding a lead as it might look. That much is true, and especially with the chaos of December and January to come.
If Manchester United are going to chip away at City — that is certainly Mourinho’s hope — the next two months are critical. By the time they line up against Newcastle at Old Trafford after the international break, their season will have comprised of 18 games in 100 days. After that, their next 16 games will be crammed into 59 days.
Between homes games against Newcastle on Nov. 18 and Stoke on Jan. 15, they will play two games a week in all four competitions including 12 in the Premier League — one more than they have faced in the first three months of the season.
Mourinho said in his news conference at Stamford Bridge he hoped his team would “be on a high,” during November, December and January.
And he will hope the relentlessness of English football during the winter months is something he can use to his advantage.
United managed the fixture congestion well last season. Between Dec. 8 and Jan. 10, they won nine straight games. It was part of a wider run of 17 games unbeaten from the start of November to the end of January.
During the same spell last season, City went on a run of seven wins from 15 games, including four Premier League defeats in December and January. City started last season with 10 straight wins, but averaged just 1.4 points per game during December and January. United averaged 2.3 points during the same period.
Pep Guardiola’s team have clearly improved since. They have won 15 of their 17 games so far this season, including impressive league victories over Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
But four games in 11 days over Christmas and New Year is a challenge for even the best teams. And Guardiola — whether he means it or not — has already insisted Arsenal’s achievement of an unbeaten Premier League season is not under threat. Mourinho has, usually, handled the packed festive fixture list well. When Chelsea won the title in 2004-05, they won six consecutive games over Christmas. They retained it the following year having won eight straight in December and January. In 2014-15, it was eight wins from 10 games in all competitions.
It is not just the number of games that makes it a crucial stage of the season. United travel to Arsenal on Dec. 2 looking for a first away win at a top six rival since Mourinho took over. Arsenal are unbeaten at the Emirates this season but Mourinho has, more often than not, found a way to beat Arsene Wenger.
City, meanwhile, face Tottenham at the Etihad on Dec. 16. Mauricio Pochettino’s side were one of the few to get the better of City last season, taking four points from their two games. Then there is the first Manchester derby, at Old Trafford on Dec. 10.
United have not been beaten at home since September’s derby last season — a run stretching 37 games. Guardiola, though, has already shown that he approaches away games in the same way he does at home. City beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in September having had 17 shots and six on target. United managed two on target in their 1-0 defeat to Chelsea before the international break.
If Mourinho hopes to chase down City, the next two months represents, at the very least, an opportunity. Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the rest are returning to the squad just in time for a period of the season when Mourinho’s teams have, historically, been at their best.
He will need help from Guardiola and hope, just like last season, City’s form cools off during the winter after a blistering start.
He will feel, though, there is still cause for optimism, even after that chastening defeat to Chelsea.
An eight-point lead, as Mourinho suggested at Chelsea, is not really an eight-point lead until Christmas is out of the way. His team will need to prove him right.
Rob is ESPN FC’s Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.