The second season under Jose Mourinho was always targeted as the season where he would begin to turn United back into title contenders. As we approach the Premier League opener at home to West Ham, I look at the changes made to the squad, how United have prepared during pre-season and what we should expect over the next 10 months.
Just after the final whistle had sounded in Stockholm, Jose Mourinho made it clear he had his summer transfer targets in place and handed to the man in charge of making them a reality. The positions in need of strength were not a secret and fairly obvious to anyone who witnessed the fluctuating first season of the Special One. Injuries at the back and the unreliable fitness of Phil Jones highlighted the need for another centre half, the ongoing answer to who would replace Michael Carrick was a must find and who would be the man the step into the huge void left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic following the club’s reluctance to offer a new contract following his bad knee injury. As per in his first season, Jose wanted to bring in fresh faces as early into the window as possible to give him the maximum amount of time to integrate them into his current setup.
The window started well, with the early acquisition of Victor Lindelof, a player that was close to joining the club six months ago, before a run of form and fitness for the current crop of centre halves changed Mourinho’s mind on bring him in. As the club prepared to fly out on the pre-season tour of the US, rumours grew of the bosses frustration with the lack of transfer activity. Alvaro Morata, Nemanja Matic and Ivan Perisic were all rumoured to be close, bids submitted but negotiations ongoing due to the craziest transfer window in football history, with price tags rocketing to an out of control and overinflated high. As the Morata rumours rumbled on, seemingly out of the blue, the club were heavily linked to the signing of Romelu Lukaku from Everton, a link that rapidly turned into reality as he became the second summer signing on the day the club flew across the pond. As the tour ended and the club returned to Manchester, an agreement was finally made with Chelsea for the transfer of Nemanja Matic, in time for him to make his bow in the 2-1 defeat of Sampdoria two days later. As the season approaches, Mourinho still only has three of the preferred four transfers, but luckily they cover the main three problem areas. He still would love to bring in a wide man, but the squad is well set in this area to easily cope and excel throughout the season. What Jose has now is a squad that he can fully utilise for the four fronts the club will be fighting on but more importantly the options required to succeed. Mourinho is probably the best tactical manager in the game today, able to pinpoint how to win certain games and against any given opposition, look at the famous Inter Milan Champions League win over Barcelona or even more recently, the United performance against title winning Chelsea last season, where he was able to nullify the opposition threat in order to produce a positive result. At times last season he was able to defensively change the setup, but did not possess the tools to simultaneously offer the desired attacking threat, this season should be a different story.
The likely preferred formation will be the normal 4-3-3, but with the transfers made he has options to change to a more attacking or defensive version of this. As the 3-4-3 craze, no doubt spreads through the league, Mourinho has clearly identified a need to be able to switch to this formation at some stage after utilising it a number of times during pre-season games and at times to greater effect that the 4-3-3. Matic has come from a title winning team playing the same formation, so knows how to play it, he has brought in another centre half with no outgoings in the same position, so will have plenty of options in this department. The one area that will probably determine that it remains a plan B formation, will be the lack of natural wing-back options. Luke Shaw could be ideal if he can get back to full fitness and sharpness and Antonio Valencia effectively A full fit Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia could be a better version of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, but past these two the option are limited. Matteo Darmian has played at fullback for Italy, but is very limited in his attacking instincts, especially from the left. Ashley Young could be a decent option too, but also holds a dodgy injury record of late. This leaves options of converting an attack minded player into a more defensive minded one, which I can not see being a recipe for success. In attack, Lukaku will provide similar target presence to that of Zlatan, but also fill the void left by the big Swede on the goal front. Lukaku has an excellent Premier League record for Everton and West Brom, I see no reason why this should not continue or even improve with the creative engine that United possess. He will also provide Mourinho with a wider spectrum of attacking options, as he, unlike Zlatan, has the pace, age and work rate to run in behind defences. I have seen Lukaku have off days with his consistency needing to improve in order to succeed at a huge club like United, but when he is on his game, he is almost the ultimate striker and unplayable. As a defender against Zlatan, you are fairly safe he won’t be able to run in behind for 90 minutes and his pace was not his strong point, against someone like Lukaku, his movement towards the ball mixed with runs in behind, making him very hard to mark and keep quiet for 90 minutes. I can see him being a big star at Old Trafford and provide the firepower to ensure United are title contenders and not settling for a top four finish only.
I could not complete this section without a special mention to Wayne Rooney, who has left the club after a period of success at the club. Rooney will probably remain the United all time leading goal scorer for years to come and will have to go down as a United legend. His leadership on the pitch over the years has been immense, leading to him being named club captain. Although his performances stagnated in recent years resulting in a reduced role last season, he will have to be remembered for some memorable goals, performances and success he brought to the club.
As previously mentioned, the special one would have wanted all of his new squad members to join him in the states to ensure the squad is fully integrated by the time the first whistle is sounded at Old Trafford. He only managed to take two with him and on first look, they fared quite differently. Lukaku managed to score a couple of goals, the highlight being his strike against City. He has shown glimpses of creating a great understanding with Paul Pogba which should only improve with it looking more and more likely that Pogba will be taking up an advanced and relaxed role this term. The big Belgian’s overall game has been on full display, with still some doubts on his hold up ability, specifically his so called bad first touch. Don’t get me wrong at times his first touch looked way off, but the majority of the tour games it looked tight and he looked to bring players into play. Lindelof has looked somewhat shakier in his brief performances so far. Jose has opted to play him alongside Chris Smalling in the games, with Eric Bailly partnering Phil Jones, the reason now apparent due to the latter both having suspensions in Europe and Mourinho identified the need to build a partnership between Smalling and Lindelof. At times, especially his debut, Lindelof has shown his ability on the ball, bringing it out from the back and looking comfortable doing so. He has probably looked more comfortable in a back three, but has been found a little short in his positioning and reading of play, no more so than his ridiculous foul that lead to the Real Madrid Penalty equaliser. But, he has been fully defended by his manager, who advised that he will need time to adapt to the change of play and opposition, suggesting Lindelof remains very much Mourinho’s preferred long term partner for Bailly. Matic managed the first half against Sampdoria, in a 3-4-3 formation, where he fitted into the side and system with what seemed like ease. His anticipation of the game is something I picked up, able to break up play and then release the ball quickly, something United’s attacking players will cherish. Lukaku and Matic are likely to fit in quicker due to their Premier League experience, so fully expect them to start the game versus West Ham in a week’s time.
Away from the new boys, Jesse Lingard had a very impressive start to the pre-season, featuring more than most whilst putting in some high level performances to boost his hopes of a starting berth. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has scored a few goals along the way, whilst being played in varying positions and Mourinho has also managed to get some game time for Andreas Perreira who looks like he could be heavily used in the upcoming season, even if more than likely in a squad capacity rather than a regular starter. However, there has to be a special mention for a man that looked like he could fall completely out of favour or even leave the club all together, especially with the rumoured arrival of Perisic, that man is Anthony Martial. He has produced some terrific moments on the tour, looking back to his quick, direct and skillful best, giving Mourinho a headache for who starts on the left verss West Ham. Martial would feel hard done by is he doesn’t get the nod and has certainly done all he can to push for the spot. If he continues in the same vain he would be almost impossible to overlook and provide some relief to the boss if a new wide man is not found come 1st September.
Pre-season on a whole has been positive, managing to use a number of formations and partnerships to help gauge where the strengths of the squad are. Players, who last season looked fairly lost at Old Trafford, seem to have finally taken the proverbial kick up the backside on board and could be a big boost to Mourinho’s hope for a title winning season. The negatives would be that atrocious penalty shootout against Real and the frustrations with how quickly players have arrived at the club.
The Premier league curtain raiser
In just over a week’s time, United will once again begin a new Premier League season and one that everyone connected to the club will see a more serious threat to bringing the trophy back to Old Trafford. The first four games look fairly friendly, with home games at West Ham and Leicester and away trips to Swansea and Stoke, Mourinho will be looking for a quick start before the visit of Everton in the middle of September. The normal threats in the race to the title remain, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all strengthening their squads. Spurs have not added, but the quality of their starting eleven remains there to be seen, but how much they will be impacted by the Wembley factor is to be seen. Everton have done the most business this summer which could see a possible newbie in the top six. But United’s biggest threat will remain just across the city, with Pep Guardiola targeting his less than impressive defence during the window, to add to his ridiculous amount of attacking talent. It is hard to see how they will be stopped, but at the same time this has been the case for the past three seasons.
Jose looks determined to bring the good times back to the club as soon as possible and sees this season as the time to do that. I expect him to play a tight tactical battle in the big games and then unleash his new and fresh attacking talent against the lower sides, seeing a vast improvement in the number of goals the team scored last outing. As the season approaches the morale amongst the club feels high and no more so than from the special one. There is still time for Ed Woodward to add to the squad, with further rumours of another marquee signing being a possibility, if it happens it could be the piece of the title winning jigsaw. However, we can only judge United on their current squad and compare that to the five or six teams who will no doubt offer the stiffest competition. Based on that, I fully expect the club to offer the closest attempt at the title since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club 5 years ago, but feel they will fall slightly short. However, the main target for the club is to put themselves back in the title frame and build a platform to take this current squad on to bigger and better things.