Another season another new manager… Yes, after 26 years of no change, Manchester United are on their fourth manager in five seasons, quite the culture shock for a club which is so use to stability.
I wrote an analysis of the Man Utd squad last season (which you can read here) and needless to say I didn’t expect the season to turn out so poorly. It felt like the league would be a toss-up between four teams, in the end it couldn’t have been further from it. To not make top four was unthinkable at this time last season, and the unthinkable happened, leaving Utd in a position of weakness, stuck in the competition nobody really wants to be in. The squad underperformed and didn’t gel; the question is whether that was to do with the players or the manager, Utd will be hoping it is the latter.
One of the biggest changes at Utd this summer was the firing of Louis Van Gaal and the hiring of Jose Mourinho. I don’t think that Mourinho really fits the way that Utd want to play or run the club, however when City sign Guardiola, Chelsea sign Conte, Liverpool have Klopp, a young threatening Spurs and Arsenal’s stability, it left Utd without much of a choice. I think a Ronald Koeman would have suit Utd better, however take Koeman and you risk another season out of the Champions League and possibly another failure, take Mourinho and you’re guaranteed success. In many ways Mourinho brings back that Utd swagger and I don’t doubt that he will take Utd back to the very top; however chances are he will only last three years, as he has at all his other clubs.
I wrote a season review at the end of last season (which you can find here) and felt like the club should probably have let go of Rojo, Carrick, Januzaj (loan), Pereira (loan), Fellaini, Varela, McNair (loan) and Keane. So far there has been very little turnover of the squad, with only Varela and Powell leaving from the first team squad, and talk about McNair going to Sunderland for £8 million (good price, but it’s a shame it isn’t a loan). There is inevitably going to be a mass exodus prior to the transfer window closing, the question is who will be the ones to go?
David De Gea is the best keeper in the Premier League and is pushing Neuer for the crown as the best in the world. This time last year I wouldn’t have thought I would be writing about David De Gea the Utd player; however after some shenanigans from Real Madrid and a Keylor Navas ascension here he still is. De Gea is a world class keeper; I don’t see him having anything but another fantastic season for Utd.
Sergio Romero is a great back up. He understands he isn’t the main man and is willing to sit on the bench patiently. When called upon he is capable of holding the fort and putting in a good performance. The problem with Romero is that I wouldn’t trust him for a long spell; if De Gea is injured for any time then they could be any trouble.
Sam Johnstone is the third keeper and is solid enough, I would be surprised if he saw any actual game time, but you never know.
Utd look very strong in nets, with the best keeper in the league and some solid back-ups. They look set for the season at this position.
Matteo Darmian seems like the perfect Jose Mourinho full back to me, defence first. Darmian didn’t have a great first season in the Premier League, struggling to stay fit and solidify his place in the team. It can be difficult coming to a new league and style of play and adapt straight away, generally you can tell if a player is good enough based on how they do in their second season, it is a massive season for Darmian.
Antonio Valencia is like a man renewed, his transformation to right back has went really well and his passion for the club is empowering. Valencia has a really good chance of beginning the season as the starting right back and rightfully so. He outplayed Darmian last season, has improved his defensive positioning hugely and now with a big target in the middle his crosses could become very deadly indeed. Valencia is a great story, he is a Mourinho type of player and the fans love him.
Right back looks like another really solid position for Utd, two good players who will have a healthy competition over who will be the starting right back.
Luke Shaw was off to a belter of a season, arguably one of the best players in the Premier League up to the point where he broke his leg. A double leg break will be a difficult injury to come back from, however Shaw is lucky that he wasn’t rushed back and has been given proper time to allow it to fully heal. I doubt his fitness will allow him to start every game at the start of the season, however once he is able to get his fitness back to the levels which they were last season, he will be back to being one of the best left backs in the league.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was who I expected to be backing up Shaw after his good performances last season; sadly it looks like Mourinho feels he would benefit more from being sent out on loan. It hasn’t happened yet but I imagine a low end Premier League team would be interested based on what we saw last season. Good prospect that needs game time to help him improve.
Shaw is one of the best left backs in the league and if he is able to stay fit will play pretty much every game. Behind Shaw there isn’t very much and it is likely that Rojo will back him up primarily and Blind will be the alternative, which isn’t the best depth but could be a lot worse.
Chris Smalling stepped up massively last season, I haven’t always been a big fan, my criticisms ran from not being good on the ball to turning off too often, however he rectified many of these complaints. Smalling probably still isn’t the best centre back in the team but it is hard to make an argument for him not starting. Smalling has come on leaps and bounds, he is still prone to the old bone head mistake which can cost the team and although I don’t think he is Utd’s best centre back, he is more than deserving of his place on the team and the starting eleven.
This is Phil Jones’ make or break season, he has to finally show why Ferguson rated him so highly. There is no doubt in my mind that Phil Jones has the potential to be a quality centre back, the doubts are whether or not he can stay on the pitch long enough to become that quality centre back. There is also only so long that you can talk about a players potential, Jones is now 24 this is his last season where you can say next year. Last season Jones only managed to play in 13 matches, his lowest total for Utd so far. He has only managed 141 matches in five season at the club, pitiful for a player who if fit has a strong chance of starting. The biggest problem with having such an injury prone player is that you constantly count them as part of your squad, yet they inevitably let you down. There is only so long that you can keep counting on an injury prone player before you have to wash your hands of them and move on. Jones is running short on time from being injury prone and the talk of potential, this year couldn’t get any bigger for him.
Daley Blind was a surprising hit at centre back last season and seems to be in Mourinho’s plans at the position for this year. I find it odd that Mourinho seems to think of Blind as a centre back, he doesn’t seem like a Mourinho type of player. Blind is slight, short and slow but has great technical ability and is extremely intelligent for a centre back. He can find it difficult to defend physical strikers and is a liability at set pieces due to the height that the team loses, two things which seem very un-Mourinho. Blind is a great utility player and is really useful to have around, he showed last season he is more than good enough to play centre back at a high level (he’s be very successful at Barcelona in my opinion), it will be interesting to see how he is used.
Eric Bailly in contrast to Blind seems like a very Mourinho signing. Big, strong, fast and young, he looks like he could be a really good player and has the attributes to be very successful in the Premier League. I’m not going to pretend that I have seen much of Bailly, however what I have seen is promising, which you’d expect when Utd dished out £32 million for him. Centre back is one of the hardest positions to adjust to when moving to a new club or league, so Bailly is lucky that Utd seem to have fairly good depth at the position so that if he is having teething problems, he can be easily rotated out.
I am not quite sure why Marcos Rojo is still a Man Utd player because he clearly isn’t good enough, however he is yet again. Terrible at set pieces and with poor positioning Rojo is an accident waiting to happen. He has something and sometimes can look like a player; however his intelligence just isn’t where you would like it to be. He will likely be the back up to Shaw (something which hurt Utd last season) and the fifth choice centre back, something which doesn’t fill me with calmness.
Axel Tuanzabe is the best young centre back on the fringes of the team, he is unlikely to see much if any game time this season, however with injury prone players in front of him he may well get his chance. Beyond that there isn’t really much, Tyler Blackett will most likely be shown the door because it isn’t anywhere near good enough for this level.
The depth at centre back is pretty good, there are six players which can be utilised (as well as Darmian) which is more than adequate. The issue with Utd’s centre backs is fitness; Jones can’t stay fit and Rojo has fitness problems, which takes you down to four, if Bailly struggles to adapt to the league then you are down to three, and one of those three is Tuanzebe who isn’t ready for a big role, which takes you down to two and all of a sudden the depth isn’t looking so good. If everyone can stay fit then Utd will be looking good at centre back, the position can take a couple of injuries and still be ok, any more and it will be in trouble.
Might as well start off with the biggest signing of the transfer window, Paul Pogba. Utd spent £90 million to bring the midfielder back to the club and although they probably overpaid by around £25 million, it is a statement signing. Utd have bought one of the biggest talents in world football, a superstar, someone who will fill billboards and entice advertiser (Woody will be excited), a marketable star which the club has sorely been missing. Pogba will give the Utd midfield exactly what it was missing last season, energy, height, power, goals and a player who opposition defences fear. Ideally Pogba would play further forward in a 4-3-3, however it is more likely he will be used as a box to box in a 4-2-3-1, which doesn’t play to his strengths quite so much. Usually you would give a signing a year to settle in, however when you pay £90 million for a player and he also used to be at the club, you can’t help but think that he should be able to hit the ground running. It’s a glamour signing and it is the signing which takes Utd from being a title contender to a strong title contender.
I was surprised to see Michael Carrick given a new contract, he seems done to me. Carrick has been a great player for the club, however his legs are gone and he isn’t making the defence piercing passes he once was. Maybe this is a hangover from LvG’s philosophy and he will kick on this season, but I have doubts. Carrick will be vice-captain and you would think losing him could hurt the team in terms of leadership; however Carrick isn’t much of a leader in my opinion. A useful guy to have in the team but he should at best be a squad player, if he’s starting consistently then Utd are in trouble.
It is a big year for Ander Herrera; he was mediocre under Van Gaal and will have to show why he deserves another year at the club. I feel sorry for Herrera because he never got a proper run in the side under Van Gall, who for whatever reason didn’t seem to fancy him and constantly played him out of position. Herrera has a lot of desire and tenacity, he’s the sort of little prick which every team needs to have. Best utilised in a box to box role, he could be very effective in a 4-3-3; however with Pogba being signed I can’t see him starting. What Herrera needs is a consistent run in the team to finally get into some form, I’m not sure he will be able to get that. An incredibly good back up for the club and a good guy to have in the dressing room.
Morgan Schneiderlin is one of many players who has a big year ahead of him. He seems like a Mourinho type of player, a no nonsense defensive midfielder who will allow his more creative midfield partners to do their thing whilst he anchors the backline. Schneiderlin struggled last season under Van Gaal, in and out of the team and struggling to hold down his place, he seemed to lose confidence. To have a poor first season is forgivable when you move to a club the size of Utd, however a poor second season tends to point to a player not being at this level, Schneiderlin needs to show why he deserves to play at this club.
Marouane Fellaini is a man who receives a lot of flak for not being Utd quality and although it is unfair at times (because he gives his all) it is generally warranted. Fellaini isn’t a good enough passer for this level, he slows play down and his vision is poor. I say it every year but Fellaini is a very useful utility to have off of the bench, he’s a great plan b. The issue with Fellaini is that when he comes on it tends to turn into hoof ball to Fellaini. If Mourinho can avoid this then he could be useful, but if someone put in a solid bid then I would let him go.
It is hard to not be disappointed in how Manchester United have treated Bastian Schweinsteiger; a player of his calibre deserves more respect. Schweinsteiger was one of the disappointments of last season, struggling to make it on the pitch and when he did looking unfit. He’s a warrior and a great leader, he can grab a game by the scruff of the neck, however it looks like he is physically shot. I can understand why Mourinho wants to get rid of Schweinsteiger and some of the PR spin which is coming out of the club doesn’t put him in the best light (although this is likely due to the backlash the club received), but it should be handled in a better manner. Schweinsteiger still has a lot to offer, he is a leader in a team which is severely lacking one, he has great experience and seems to want to play for the club, it’s a shame it hasn’t really worked out. If he were to leave it wouldn’t be a big blow for the club, he isn’t a starter and has high wages, if he is to stay then he should be brought back into the fold because he is too good to sit in the reserves.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah at just 18 already looks like a real talent. He is so physically developed, an absolute beast, however to just talk about his physical abilities would be unkind as he also looks very talented in the air and on the ball. One of the biggest issues with hiring Mourinho is that he doesn’t give youth a proper chance (despite his protests), and sadly Fosu Mensah is one of the players who will suffer from this. He should be good enough to play a squad role for the season; however he will probably find himself out on loan.
Utd’s central midfield is solid but still not great. The signing of Pogba has given it some star quality and a guaranteed starter; however the positions next to him are very much a one of many option, with no clear choice. It is hard to judge the Utd central midfield because on paper there are some really good players there, however they have generally underachieved in the last two years. There is no excuses for them now, they have a special player next to them and many are in the last chance saloon.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was one of many big signings this summer, costing around £26 million, which isn’t too bad a price. Mkhitaryan will fill the right wing position which was such a weakness for Utd last season. The player of the year for the Bundesliga last season, scoring 16 goals and contributing 15 assists. Utd sorely missed a midfielder who can create chances and score goals from the attacking positions last season, Mkhitaryan should be able to fill this necessity and be a massive contributor to the team. If you are looking for negatives regarding the Mkhitaryan transfer then you need look no further than how other players who have left Dortmund have done, generally they haven’t performed after their big transfer. The other criticism of Mkhitaryan is that he is a slow starter, his first season at Dortmund was unimpressive and it took him a couple of years to really get going, he won’t get the same sort of time at Utd to find his feet. If Mkhitaryan hits the ground running he will be the perfect addition to the first eleven, if he doesn’t it could be Shinji Kagawa all over again.
Juan Mata is in an awkward position, the reason he is at Utd is because Mourinho didn’t want him at Chelsea, now Mourinho is the manager at Utd. It’s a shame for Mata; he’s been at the club for two and a half years but has never really been able to solidify his place in the team. Mata is a ten, yet has played most of his Utd career at right wing, a position which really isn’t suited to him at all. Mata isn’t fast enough, strong enough, his delivery from the right wing isn’t good enough and he doesn’t have the defensive abilities to play the position. He has improved since he came to the club; however he is wasted out wide. It wouldn’t shock me if Mata was sold in January again, because he isn’t in the first eleven, doesn’t fit Mourinho’s style and is too good to sit on the bench. I doubt his Utd career has went how he was hoping.
Memphis was one of the biggest disappointments of last season; he seemed like a perfect signing for the left wing and then ended up barely playing. Memphis’ contribution was tiny and he looked like a lost boy who was totally out of his depth. Memphis is the prototypical Mourinho winger, strength and pace, able to cut in and shoot, he could be very effective in this system. Despite all that Memphis won’t have any success if he doesn’t get his head sorted out, he needs to grow up and stop being so petulant if he wants to make it. It’s a big year for him, if he puts in the performances he put in last season then he will be sold in the summer, he has to show why he was and is one of the biggest prospects in Europe.
The FA Cup game winner Jesse Lingard had a good first year in the senior squad and I expect him to take another step to solidify his place. Lingard isn’t ready or currently good enough to be a starter at Utd; however he is the perfect squad player. He’s this generation’s John O’Shea, someone who isn’t a starter but gets what it is to be a Utd player and is happy making his contribution when he can. Lingard needs to improve his final ball; his delivery isn’t good enough and he misses easy shot too often (usually by leaning back too much). If Lingard can improve these two things and put on some muscle he could really make massive strides forward.
Anthony Martial was the star of last season for Utd. Many eyebrows were raised when such a high fee was paid, however Martial showed why Utd had taken the risk, paying dividends very quickly. Martial should in the long run be a striker; however he is better utilised on the left wing currently. He has pace, outstanding dribbling ability and an eye for goal, if he is able to stop drifting out of games and begin running in behind more often then he genuinely could become a world class talent.
Ashley Young is going into his sixth season for Man Utd and it doesn’t really feel like it. Young has never really been able to fulfil the potential he should in his first season and since then has been in and out of the team being used mainly as a utility player. Young is a solid guy to have in the team, understands his role and doesn’t ask for more, he’s not the best but at 31 he’s worth having around, I doubt he will be at Utd next season.
Adnan Januzaj more than anybody else regressed under Van Gaal, he was such a bright spark only two years prior and now his time at Utd seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Januzaj has attitude problems and needs to do a lot of growing up, it’s easy to forget that he is only 21, but he needs to show why he should be playing at this level, he needs a loan. Andreas Pereira in many ways is similar to Januzaj; I think he has a better attitude which should help him going forward. Talk out of the club last season was that he wanted to go out on loan to gain experience only for Van Gaal to tell him that he was needed as part of the squad and then didn’t play him, pretty poor from Van Gaal, however it shows good desire from Pereira. Both players really need a loan to a low end Premier League team or a loan abroad (they would be wasted in the Championship), the talk is that Januzaj will be reunited with David Moyes at Sunderland, potentially a great move for him to regain his confidence and get back on track.
There is a lot of talent in the attacking positions. The team is likely to play a 4-2-3-1 which means that these players will likely be battling it out for the three starting positions (plus Rooney), so seven or so players to cover three positions and plenty of quality.
I am not the biggest Zlatan Ibrahimovic fan, I think he is woefully over rated and question why Manchester United think that it is a good idea to sign such an inflated ego and a man who is 34 and very much in the twilight of his career. Ibra has never been successful at a top level (one season at Barca was poor), mainly playing in the Italian and French leagues, the fourth and fifth best leagues respectively. I’m not saying he is a bad player; however it is like putting Barcelona in the Championship and then being amazed at how many goals Messi scores. What Ibra does bring to Utd is a fuck you mentality, a swagger which has sorely been missing up front and a presence which will make opposition defenders shudder. Utd were sorely lacking in a striker who can score twenty plus goals and Ibra should be able to do that. Utd have also been really bad in the last few years of flinging in a bunch of crosses to five foot nothing strikers and hoping for the best, doing nothing with their attacking set pieces and being dominated at defensive ones, Ibrahimovic gives much needed height to Utd’s attack and will help out when defending set pieces as well. I don’t know if I would want the ego in the dressing room but when there is a distinct lack of quality, proven and available strikers in the world (see Arsenal) you have to bite the bullet and take the risk.
Wayne Rooney… I don’t think he is good enough to play at this level anymore. A quality player has a well-defined position and if they are fit they play in that position, Rooney plays all over the pitch. He’s a striker until he doesn’t score enough, then he’s a ten until he isn’t creative enough, then he’s a central midfielder until he isn’t good enough at passing, then he’s back to being a striker and the circle continues on and on. If his name wasn’t Wayne Rooney he would be closer to an Ashley Young role, however because of who he is Rooney is a starter and the captain, when he really shouldn’t be. He’s lost more than a couple of steps, he has one pass (long ball out wide), his shooting has regressed terribly, he slows down play and he embodies everything bad about Van Gaal’s spell at Utd. There are better players in the positions which Rooney plays, he is on ridiculously high wages and I really don’t see where he fits in this team. If I were picking my first eleven Rooney would be nowhere near it and he doesn’t seem like the type who is happy sitting on the bench. I doubt he will be sold, however he should be. It will be interesting to see how ruthless Mourinho will be, if Rooney plays a lot this season then I think it can only be a negative for Utd.
Marcus Rashford was a revelation last season, barely coming out of the team once he made his first start. Sadly for Rashford this season will be a little different as he will be playing behind Ibrahimovic. In many ways this will be good for Rashford as the pressure on him to deliver will drop and he will have a chance to grow into his role at the club. Rashford will likely have a solid season this year, however it will be interesting to see if he is able to maintain form when he is in an out of the team as he will be. Rashford has everything you need to be a successful striker; pace, a nose for goal, running in behind and a great understanding of the game for his age, however if I were to make one complaint it is that he needs to work on his first touch which can too often be slack, if he fixes that then he will be a real talent and I think he’s in for another good year.
James Wilson was once the bright hope, now he is another in a long list of under achievers. I wouldn’t sell him this season but he needs to go out on loan and show why he deserves to be at the club, if he isn’t capable (he doesn’t seem to be) of doing so then he should go. Will Keane is also still at the club but I imagine that he will be gone by the end of the window because he really isn’t good enough and isn’t the youngest.
It was the biggest weakness last season as Utd went into the season with only Rooney, however the emergence of Rashford and Ibrahimovic on a free has meant that all of a sudden Utd look pretty good up front.
On paper the squad looks really good and I think that you could make a strong argument for Utd having the best squad and possibly first eleven in the league. Utd have got younger, faster and stronger at most positions; the signings seem to be very strong and the club has a manager who is a proven winner, after finishing fifth, things are starting to look very good for Utd.
When I wrote the Utd season review at the end of last season I felt like Utd needed a striker, a right winger, a centre back and a central midfielder, which is exactly what they have signed. I don’t think there is a necessity to sign another player for any position, obviously if a quality player falls into your lap then you shouldn’t say no, but there is no need to press for it. I would imagine that Utd will go into the season without Januzaj, Borthwick-Jackson, Pereira, Keane, Blackett, Wilson and Schweinsteiger, as well as possibly Mata, Fellaini and Fosu-Mensah. None of these players leaving will overly affect the team, however if all were to leave then I feel another play in the midfield would be needed.
I expect Utd this season to line-up accordingly (4-2-3-1):
It’s a solid line-up but I think it would look better if Mourinho switched to a 4-3-3, dropping Rooney and adding Herrera, doing this would get the best out of Pogba and for the price he cost they should be trying to maximise his return.
I think that Utd are looking good going into the season, the summer additions are good, the foundations Van Gaal left are solid and the new manager should breathe new life into the team. City are favourites going into the season, however I don’t see much between the teams and would probably give Utd the edge due to Mourinho’s experience with the Premier League. Utd also have the Europa League which will be an unnecessary distraction, it will be interesting to see how seriously the club takes it because after a poor last few years the club has really dropped down the co-efficient and would be a lower seed in the Champions League if they were to make it there next season. A title challenge this year is a must; the club needs to get back to where it was when Fergie was in charge.
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