Three games played, three games won, 10 goals scored, none conceded, top of the league. Manchester United have had the perfect start to the season. Only one thing could possibly break their stride and unfortunately for them it’s coming down the track.
Only two weeks after the beginning of the season the Premier League is shutting down. All across the league managers are saying goodbye to their players and hoping to get them back in one piece for the matches in a fortnight’s time.
For some clubs it’ll be a welcome break. You can imagine the likes of Rafa Benitez using these crucial few days to tie up deals and plug gaps in his Newcastle squad. Frank De Boer might well be in need of a holiday already.
But for clubs who have hit the ground running, they need this fortnight off like they need a hole in the head. And that means Manchester United.
The international fixtures are distractions that Jose Mourinho could do without right now. His players are well in tune with one another and have that crucial element that in football is hard to gain but easy to lose – momentum.
United are settled and playing winning football. The wins against West Ham, Swansea and Leicester were well-earned and each one showcased the devastating power United now possess.
Attacking moves are coming freely. There is pace on the flanks, fluid movement in the centre from Romelu Lukaku and creativity in behind from Henrik Mkhitaryan from Juan Mata. Pulling the strings in the middle is Paul Pogba, finally earning the credit he deserved last season for being the best midfielder in the league.
"The team is playing very well," Mourinho said as quoted by the BBC. "They are very confident and are playing great football. I like my team very much. Three matches and nine points is nothing new for us, because last season it was three matches and nine points."
Now though and the train is forced to ground to a halt. United’s training ground at Carrington will be a lonely place in the coming days as up to 16 first-teamers head off for international duty. Sergio Romero, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly are not only facing gruelling matches but gruelling trips to get there and back.
The remainder are facing down qualifiers of varying importance in Europe with only Mata and Anthony Martial from the weekend’s starters spared international duty this time round.
Mourinho made reference to the international break in the immediate aftermath of the win against Leicester. After three straight wins, it's not what he was looking for.
“We don’t have players to train,” Mourinho told BT Sport. “That’s a pity. Then they arrive and two days later we have to play again a very difficult match against Stoke.”
A quick glance across social media would reveal that fans feel the same way. It's a strange situation where supporters all over the world unite for the World Cup but can't stand the process of actually qualifying for it. Mourinho spoke out late last season about the timing of international friendlies, coming at a time of major fixture congestion for his side.
There has been a clamour for FIFA to do something in order to alleviate the pressure of international matches coming at this early juncture of the campaign. Players are barely back and they're off again. That could affect things significantly for the league leaders.
It’s not that Stoke is the mystical fortress it was once supposed to be. It’s that United last season failed to win any of their games immediately following the international break.
They started the season with three straight wins - over Southampton, Bournemouth and Hull - before losing to Manchester City after being reconvened. United couldn't regain their momentum, going on to lose against Watford shortly after.
After the October break they drew with Liverpool before a hammering at Chelsea and a draw against Burnley at home. In November they came back from the break and drew with Arsenal and followed that up with draws against West Ham and Everton. They beat Middlesbrough 3-1 in late March and succumbed to two draws - against West Brom and Everton again - when they returned. United missed out on a lot of points last season and many of those slip-ups came off the back of the international break.
Stoke therefore is a huge test and one which could well define United’s suitability for a title challenge. They have repeated the trick of last season's strong start but now must overcome this next affliction.
Ideally United would roll straight into the next fixture but instead are facing their first major examination.