An upbeat Jose Mourinho, with a smile wide enough to stretch from Stockholm all the way to Manchester. The Special One has not had it all going his way during his first season at the helm of United, but victory in the Europa League final will surely go a long way in ensuring that the campaign is seen in a far more positive light. Champions League qualification, albeit through an unusual route, had clearly become the main priority as the season progressed to its final stages. In the process, winning the trophy which was the only absentee from Manchester United’s glorious European cabinet, would naturally give everybody concerned with the club an added cause for celebration. Also claiming the EFL Cup as well as the Community Shield (many would not consider it a trophy but try telling its winners that), it has been a successful season on the face of it but a mixed one when analysed in depth.
Mourinho landed his dream job on taking over at Old Trafford, succeeding Louis van Gaal. Under the Dutchman, the football was not at all easy on the eye and a far cry from the kind of dominant displays that the fans had become accustomed to under Sir Alex Ferguson. Undoubtedly one of the major objectives of Mourinho’s appointment was to get back the flair in United’s play, along with enabling the club to challenge for major honours once again. Not always known for the most attacking football, but definitely a master tactician when it comes to winning competitions, the experienced Portuguese manager was certainly welcomed in with open arms by a majority section of the fans. Three years post Sir Alex’s retirement, United endured a disastrous campaign under David Moyes and two listless seasons under van Gaal, though his last contribution was to land the FA Cup.
An extremely demanding job, which requires a certain set of credentials in terms of calibre and experience, Jose seemed cut out for the role, and the first signs under his management were extremely satisfying. Signing the likes of Eric Bailly, untested in the Premier League but possessing the necessary physical and mental attributes to succeed in England, along with the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic set the ball rolling for United’s summer transfer window. Henrikh Mkhitaryan also followed, and if his recent displays for Borussia Dortmund were anything to go by, he was bound to be a hit in Manchester. Then came the big one, quite literally in financial terms. Paul Pogba, nurtured in Manchester but sold to Juventus, came back as the most expensive player in the world and the much-needed midfield lynchpin that the team had been missing for a while. With these four signings added to an already talented squad, one could understand the optimism surrounding the start to the season.
There were certain pressing issues to be dealt with in terms of existing players too. The position that Wayne Rooney would occupy – if he was to be a regular starter at all – and the role to be designated to a World Cup winner and highly experienced midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. Manchester United have always taken pride in giving youth their due opportunities, so the likes of an emerging Marcus Rashford and a potentially talented Jesse Lingard were also to be dealt with meticulously. This, with the players in the current youth team, to be given a reasonable number of chances to prove themselves as and when possible. Most of all, while managing these responsibilities and simultaneously trying to figure out his best formation and starting eleven, the three time Premier League winner was given the primary task of mounting a challenge for the Premier League title.
Three wins on the bounce with Zlatan frequenting the scoresheet meant a solid start to the campaign, though what followed in the Manchester derby was genuinely a wake-up call. Outfought and outplayed, especially in the first half, Mourinho had a lot of questions to answer. Mkhitaryan had a below par outing, to say the least, and was substituted at half-time. Even though the scoreline read 2-1 to City, it was a far more damaging defeat. It led to the establishment of a pattern at Old Trafford, with United not being able to finish off teams and ensuring victories. This led to a host of home draws, against the likes of opposition that would be considered as a guarantee for obtaining 3 points. To name a few, Burnley, Stoke, Bournemouth, Hull and Swansea all emerged from the Theatre of Dreams with a point. Teams who would earlier enter the iconic stadium with damage limitation as the priority, now harboured genuine hope of grabbing points. A total of 15 draws in the season, most of which came at home, led to the unwanted record of most draws ever in a single campaign for the Red Devils.
Finishing in 6th place, 24 points behind champions Chelsea, hardly represents an ideal first season for Mourinho. Yes, he has guided the club back to Europe’s elite club competition, clearly sacrificing any chances of finishing in the top four towards the end. More a case of the end justifying the means, surely a lot of fans would have expected a lot more. The season was not entirely devoid of positives though. Marcus Rashford got his fair share of opportunities and scored a lot of critical goals in crucial matches to enhance his burgeoning reputation. Jesse Lingard was played more often than anticipated and took his chance fairly well enough too. Axel Tuanzebe made a smooth transition to first-team football, looking like an accomplished player in the few games that he played. A good outing for a host of youth team members in the last game of the season at Old Trafford would also have pleased a large section of the fans. Bailly and Zlatan were outstanding. The Swede’s long term injury was unfortunate, yet one can be sure a character like Ibra would bounce back even stronger. Mkhitaryan grew and started to express himself as the season progressed, contributing vital goals to the successful Europa League campaign. Pogba seemed burdened by his hefty price tag, with virtuoso displays in some matches coupled with underwhelming performances in quite a few big games.
A plethora of positives, as well as negatives, can be drawn from Manchester United’s 2016-2017 season. With their Champions League status restored, the club once again has the bargaining power to attract the most talented names across Europe. The signs indicate that Mkhitaryan and Pogba will get better in their second season, with Bailly seemingly set to play at United for many years to come. It will be interesting to see how Zlatan’s return is handled and who is bought in the summer window. Antoine Griezmann has been constantly linked and James Rodriguez is being touted as a done deal in a lot of reports. Alexandre Lacazette and Romelu Lukaku’s names have also been floating around. has also been Yet, when it comes to Manchester United in the transfer window, one needs to be more cautious than expectant when players are linked. A couple of solid signings should do the trick, though every incoming player will be thoroughly scrutinized, especially after the way Paul Pogba’s first season panned out.
Endless financial means at their disposal like always, participation in the Champions League ensured and many players linked as is the case with every transfer window. A manager who generally tends to succeed in his second season and a set of fans that are going to back him to fulfill the objectives, there are plenty of positive signs. The number of home draws, injuries and points tally far from adequate were the major tarnishes on the Portuguese’s first campaign. Definite scope for improvement, but if someone knows how to take necessary actions in order to achieve ultimate objectives, it’s Mourinho. A lot of detractors point to the fact that he has lost his mojo. Only time will tell whether he can prove them wrong. For the next couple of months, an enticing transfer window ensues, subsequent to which one can expect an enthralling season.