When Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United won the Europa League, he instructed his team to celebrate by holding up three fingers to indicate the three trophies they had clinched – Community Shield, EFL Cup and the Europa League.
It was a classic Mourinho move – the image was splashed on the front pages of most newspapers and websites giving readers a lingering sense that this was a team that had tasted a lot of success. But even Mourinho knew deep down that his first season at the Manchester club was far from what he would have wanted. United finished sixth in the Premier League and weren’t much of a threat domestically.
The main issues that plagued United were the inability to finish matches off, especially at Old Trafford, and a lack of goals. Fifteen draws and 54 goals make for abysmal numbers – even the ninth-placed AFC Bournemouth (55) scored more goals than the mighty Manchester United.
Mourinho’s solution for United’s profligacy in front of goal was to sign Romelu Lukaku for a reported £75million from Everton. Since joining the Premier League, the Belgian has had four seasons of 15-plus goals, and last year he was on the scoresheet for a whopping 25 times. He will have to fill Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shoes and endure a lot of scrutiny and pressure.
While Lukaku’s addition will definitely ease some of United’s goal-scoring woes, it’s the other attacking options that will need to step up for them to become a dominant force in the league: Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan give Mourinho plenty of options up front but at least a couple of them need to score in the double figures in the next 10 months.
In the 2016/17 season, Mata was the second-highest scorer for the team in the league with just six goals, behind Ibrahimovic’s 17. Star signing Pogba struggled to live to his full potential (and price tag), with only five goals and four assists in domestic football.
However, this season the Frenchman could become an explosive force thanks to Mourinho’s other signing: Nemanja Matic for reported £40million from Chelsea.
Matic adds aggression and discipline to United’s midfield and he will fit right into Mourinho’s preferred three-man midfield and should be a regular figure in the starting XI alongside Ander Herrera and Pogba. A partnership between Herrera and Matic will allow Pogba more freedom to express himself and the license to roam forward.
Both Lukaku and Matic represented more than just regular signings — by hijacking Chelsea's bid for the Belgian striker and then weakening the defending champions existing squad by securing Matic, Mourinho sent out a warning sign to the rival clubs and further underlined his title-winning aspirations.
Mourinho’s third signing – Victor Lindelof for £31million from Benfica – strengthens his defensive line. But it is this defence that looks the most undecided at the moment. Eric Bailly, bought last year for £30m, and Antonio Valencia, are the only two defenders who look assured of a starting spot.
The second centre-back and left-back position is still a battle between Lindelof and Phil Jones, and Matteo Darmin, Daley Blind and Marcus Rojo respectively. As stingy as United’s defence was last season – Mourinho's team kept the joint most clean sheets in the league with 17 – they can at times look really shaky at the back and will need to avoid conceding late goals.
In goal, David de Gea remains a steadfast presence and the Spaniard is one of the best keepers in the Premier League. Sergio Romero represents a solid second choice, who is happy to step up when called on.
If reports are to be believed, Mourinho is still looking to sign one more player before the transfer window slams shut at the end of August and if they manage to acquire a versatile winger, they will a resemble a force that should easily challenge for the title.
As the Super cup final showed, Marouane Fellaini continues to be Mourinho’s trusted man, and with good reason. While the 29-year-old can often cut a frustrating figure, he has shown he is an effective plan B for Mourinho to rely on. With the new signings, Mourinho could line his team in a variety of ways but a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 looks set to be the preferred formation.
The big question still remains whether Mourinho can forge a consistent starting side out of his squad after a year in which injuries hampered any attempt at continuity. After a first season of transition, Mourinho must stamp his authority on this team and is under a lot of pressure to deliver the coveted Premier League title.
Manchester United’s opening six matches are against West Ham, Swansea City, Leicester City, Stoke City, Everton and Southampton and a strong start is a must for Mourinho and his men. Some of these are tricky fixtures, but it’s against teams like these that United struggled last season.
This year, they will have to ensure that they bring back an aura of invincibility to Old Trafford and do not drop points, especially at home. While they do not have the cumbersome Thursday night Europa League matches to deal with, Champion League football is a whole different ball game altogether.
Mourinho ensured that United returned to the elite tournament, where they deservedly belong, but a lot will come down to how the manager rotates his players to tackle and cope with different fixtures.
Since taking over the reins at the Manchester club, the Portuguese manager has spent over £300 million and meticulously cherry-picked his signings. Over his managerial career, Mourinho has often tasted success in his second season at a club with the domestic league title. United haven’t lifted the Premier League trophy since 2013, which was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge.
Since Ferguson’s departure, United have finished seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Premier League. A top-four finish will no longer be enough. If Mourinho is to prove that he is indeed the worthy successor to Ferguson’s throne, Manchester United will have to challenge for the title at the least. Anything less would be considered failure.
Published Date: Aug 11, 2017 04:00 pm | Updated Date: Aug 12, 2017 12:21 pm