Premier League: Manchester United's Europa League, EFL Cup success salvaged a drab season under Jose Mourinho
Manchester United’s boring draws at Old Trafford were a huge letdown but Europa League and EFL Cup success saved Jose Mourinho from an embarrassing first season at the club.
Manchester United finished in a disappointing sixth position in the Premier League and for the fourth year in a row, since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013, the Red Devils failed to make it to the top three . David Moyes and Louis van Gaal had attempted to bring United back into reckoning but were shown the door after failing to match up with the club's expectations.
The appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager was supposed to help bring a massive upturn in fortunes for United. However, the 20-time winners ended up registering their lowest number of wins in the Premier League era. They last had fewer wins in a season (16) in 1990-91, a couple of years before the Premier League was formed. Moreover, United drew 15 league matches, which is the most for the club since 1991-92, with six of those stalemates ending goalless. These numbers signal worrying times for the most successful club in England, who are now a shadow of their former selves.
Whether Mourinho's first season in charge at Old Trafford was a success or not came down to a single game in Stockholm. Despite lifting the EFL Cup in February, all United had to do was win the Europa League to salvage a below par season. A comfortable 2-0 victory in the final against Ajax at the Friends Arena gave United fans faint hopes of expecting a much better season next year as they qualified for the Champions League. The win also provided a city in mourning with something to cheer after 22 people died and more were injured in a terror attack at the Manchester Arena.
But the question here is, will this be regarded as a 'successful' season?
'Unluckiest team in the world'
Despite a woeful Premier League season, where Mourinho felt as the 'worst manager in the world', the Portuguese managed to maintain his image of a man who guarantees success. Earlier in the season, United managed to take only three points out of a possible nine after sharing the spoils with Burnley, Stoke City, and Arsenal. Mourinho said: "We have taken three points from those games and it should have been nine. Everybody knows we are the unluckiest team in the Premier League."
Mourinho knows very well that he is to be blamed for such an erratic domestic season in spite of signing the players he wanted well in advance. There can be a dispute over how Mourinho utilised some of his players like Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial or even Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the season. Although United's attacking force looked solid on paper, it was their defenders, especially Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian, who stepped up to save the club from embarrassment.
Mourinho was subjected to a lot of accusations and criticism and knew he had no other option but to win a trophy he once insulted. And after saving his season by the skin of his teeth, Mourinho took a swipe at his critics and other managers in the Premier League with his "poets don’t win many titles" remarks.
"In a bad season when sometimes I felt my team were the worst team in the world, where I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies (the Community Shield in August being the other) and go into the Champions League by winning a trophy not by finishing second, third or fourth," said Mourinho after winning the Europa League on 24 May.
Two titles in his first year in charge at United still looks an incredible feat. The Portuguese guided his team to join the select group — Ajax, Bayern Munich, Juventus and of course Chelsea — who have claimed every trophy on offer.
The Theatre of Draws
With 10 frustrating draws at Old Trafford, it would only be apt to replace the 'Theatre of Dreams' banner with 'Theatre of Draws'. United's win rate in the Premier League was just 38.8 percent, the lowest since the relegation season of 1973-74. This, however, comes down to the team's vulnerability to attack and their inability to score. United scored 54 goals in their 38 league games, 31 fewer than champions Chelsea. Also, the team struggled to find a regular scorer, unlike other top five clubs.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted the most goals for United in a season where he did not fully flourish. Marcus Rashford, a deadly finisher at just 18, was often stationed out on the wing. Martial, who single-handedly saved United's season last year was seen warming the bench or playing out of position. Mkhitaryan flickered while Pogba was unlucky in repeatedly hitting the post and creating chances for Ibrahimovic, who failed to make the most of them for a major part of the season.
Mourinho's side underperformed consistently in front of their home crowd. Since Tom Heaton's brilliance between the sticks for Burnley at Old Trafford, United continued the trend of making goalkeepers look like heroes. In reality, awful finishing cost them too many points. If United had won the draws, 15 to be exact, they would have been in a very different place. But unfortunately, ifs and buts don't work in sport.
Weirdest unbeaten run
United were the only side to remain unbeaten for more than five months in the Premier League this season. Many called them the new 'invincibles', while others taunted them with the 'unwinnables' tag. Out of those 25 unbeaten games, United won just 13 and drew 12. Not to forget, they were also the only side to remain fixed at one league position for more than 100 days — sixth. United failed to capitalise on easy chances, and having lost just five games in the league — two came against Arsenal and Spurs towards the end when they were focusing on — they should have challenged for the title. However, they ended up scripting the weirdest unbeaten streak in the history of the league.
"We need to score goals to win matches. We don't score enough goals. We are the second team in the Premier League with most shots, but we are the third worst in relation to shots and the number of goals we score," said Mourinho after drawing against Swansea.
"How many goals have Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba scored? How many goals from the attacking players? Not many," he added.
No margin for error
After Ferguson left, United found themselves struggling as they seemed to have lost the command over their defence. One of Mourinho's toughest tasks this season was to turn a shaky defence into a solid one. There were no surprises when United stopped leaking goals and maintained a convincing back line. Before the season, British media had reported that the likes of Daley Blind and Rojo will be sold once Mourinho arrives but it was these players who managed to impress under the Portuguese manager. Eric Bailly was arguably the signing of the season for United as he not only stabilised United's back four but emerged as a consistent performer. David de Gea, United's player of the year in the last three seasons, was just a mere spectator in most of United's games this season.
It has been a roller-coaster ride for Mourinho and United over the nearly 60 games that they ended up playing this the season. Alhough the Portuguese would have preferred finishing in the top three, this was a season where United bounced back when they were least to and failed at times despite dominating the game. Still, their season can be described as a successful one with two trophies and a place in the Champions League. All eyes will be on Mourinho and chief executive Ed Woodward as United have already started to target some of the players who could strengthen the team for better results in the season ahead.
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