A belated season review of the champions of Europe…cough…and League…Cup champions, Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford ended with winning two of the four tournaments which Manchester United entered, a success but only barely.
At the start of the season if you had said what was the minimum expected of Utd this season the answer would have been to get Champions League football. Not too high an aim but one which if the club failed would signal a disaster of a season. Utd achieved that aim but it wasn’t the way the club was supposed to and in the end it was all overly nervous.
I thought at the start of the season that Utd should be challenging for the league, I felt that with the money invested and the Mourinho coming in that Utd were the team in the best position to win the league, however that turned out to not be the case in what turned into an incredibly frustrating season.
Ultimately this season for Utd was about how well the club could do in the league, it is the competition which the team is marked on and this season the team failed again. Four years after Ferguson left and Utd have finished 7th, 4th, 5th and 6th respectively, only one top four finish and worse than that not once have Utd challenged for the league in this time. It’s easy to forget that Utd didn’t finish lower than 3rd in any of Fergie’s Premier League seasons, what has followed really hasn’t been good enough.
Mourinho’s team followed the post Fergie trend of disappointing in the league, however despite finishing a position lower than last season the team actually showed a lot of progress. Utd are still a work in progress, however the signs of improvement are definitely there. Utd played their best football since Fergie’s last season, actually showing attacking intent in most games, creating bundles of chances and genuinely looking like an attacking force. The problem was that despite creating a ton of opportunities Utd really struggled to finish them. Utd scored 54 goals, of the teams who finished above them Arsenal scored the least with 77, that’s 23 goals of a difference. Utd had the second best defence in the league but if you are so far behind your competitors in the goalscoring stakes then it really isn’t good for very much and ultimately an inability to convert clear cut chances cost Utd dearly.
Utd’s home record was abysmal this season, so many disappointing results against teams which should the team should never be dropping points against. Draws at home against Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham, Hull, Bournemouth, West Brom and Everton are bad on most days but in each of these games Utd dominated the games but couldn’t get the result, that’s 16 points tossed away.
Utd’s top scorer in the league this season was Ibrahimovic with a solid 17, however the real issue is when you look beyond Ibra to Utd’s next best scorer, a paltry 6 from Juan Mata. Ultimately Utd’s league season faltered due to the lack of an ability to score goals. At times if Ibra wasn’t going to score then it was hard to see who was, the problem got bigger when Ibra himself was often not on it.
The cup form was a lot better than the league form but even then it left a lot to be desired. The League Cup was a good showing from Utd but ultimately most teams don’t take it seriously and Utd got fairly fortunate in the final. The defence of the FA Cup was unfortunate as a poor refereeing decision made a difficult task almost impossible, although it was probably for the best because the already heavy fixture congestion would only have been worse if Utd had managed to progress further.
The reason this season went from being a total disaster to not half bad was the Europe League. Mourinho took the risk of placing all his eggs in the Europa basket and it paid off. Yet despite winning it all I can’t help but be disappointed that Utd still struggled their way through to the final before ultimately winning it all.
The group stages were lacklustre as Utd sluggishly finished second behind Fenerbache, picking up two losses in the six games, but that was ok because at that time the Europa was just a distraction. By the time the knockout stages came around the situation in the league as beginning to look a lot more bleak but still the Europa was not the priority. Saint Etienne were brushed aside with relative ease before a tricky trip to Russia gave Utd some problems.
It wasn’t until the quarters that the situation in the league became blatantly obvious that Utd were going to really struggle to make top four with the fixture congestion which was likely to occur. A quarter final against Anderlecht should have been an easy enough task, however Utd managed to make an arse of both games, allowing the Belgians to stick around a hell of a lot longer than they should have. The semi finals were even worse as Utd dominated an underwhelming Celta Vigo team before finding themselves in a position where realistically they should have been eliminated.
Guidetti shat a last second chance giving Utd the tie, but in reality the way that the games against Vigo and Anderlecht went were a common sight in this season. Utd dominating sides for seventy minutes, unable to score more than one and then sitting deep and inviting a less able team on to the backline and asking them to score and so many times this season that is exactly what happened. In both ties Utd got away with it after underwhelming finishes to the match.
After the drama of the quarters and semis the final was a rather meek affair as the moment looked too big for Ajax. Mourinho got his tactics spot on and the players showed up, Ajax seemed incapable of doing anything but pass the ball in front of the Utd front line without any cutting edge whatsoever. Oddly enough the final was the first time Utd had scored more than one goal in ninety minutes in the knockout stages, so there’s no wonder it was such a calm finish in the final.
It’s one of those ridiculous things that if you had told me that Utd would finish 6th in the league I would have thought that they would have had a disastrous season, yet due to winning the Europa League the only team in England who had a better year was Chelsea. In reality this season wasn’t really good enough, however the Europa win made it a reasonably good year, next season will need to be better.
Another fabulous season for David De Gea who once again showed why he is the best goalkeeper in the league. This season wasn’t quite as eventful as the previous few but De Gea still stuck out as the one true world class player which Utd have. The question once again for De Gea is whether he will be with the club next season or whether Real Madrid will finally sign him. Obviously you’d hope that he is the number one at the start of next season, but even in the worst case scenario Utd would at least get a true market value for him if he were to leave, something which hasn’t been the case in previous seasons.
Romero is one of the best back up goalkeepers in the world, probably not good enough to be your weekly starter but perfect to come in with a reliable set of hands. If Romero is happy to continue in the role then that would be great news for Utd, however without Europa next season his playing time will likely drop and he may be limited to cup appearances.
Antonio Valencia has really become an outstanding right back, the drive and energy to get up and down the wing for ninety minutes, an outlet for so many attacks and most importantly his defensive skills and awareness have improved greatly. In my opinion Valencia was the league’s best right back last season. He’ll be 32 next season so I think the team should be looking for his replacement in the long term, however in the short term his consistently quality performances mean that positions with a greater need can be dealt with.
Darmian had another one of those seasons, I really thought he would kick on this year and would work very well under Mourinho’s system, he did to an extent but not as much as I would have imagined. Darmian has been forced out of the right back spot by Valencia’s quality play but has found his place as a fill in at left back. Long term you have to think that Darmian won’t be playing left back but as a utility man who can play all across the backline he is a useful asset to have, still needs to work on his attacking ability though.
Another season of disappointment for Utd at the left back position as Luke Shaw managed to once again under perform to his potential. Shaw will only be 22 at the start of next season so still has so much time to develop into the player that Utd thought they were buying, however since signing he hasn’t really shown that. It was always going to be difficult to come back after his leg break, however you would have thought that by the second half of the season he would be up and running and contributing heavily to the team. Instead he barely got any game time and seems to have regressed again. The problem with Shaw is that he seems to be weak mentally and also seems to have problems with conditioning, this isn’t a new problem as it was the exact same issue he had in Van Gaal’s first season. It’s clear that Shaw has potential to become a good player, he needs to sort himself out mentally or he won’t be at the club next season, it’s a make or break year.
I think that Utd will have to seriously look into signing another left back to challenge Shaw, as for the third season in a row the left back position has been a total mess. Shaw is only 21 and should really be the left back of the future, but he has shown absolutely nothing in his time at Utd, yes Blind and Darmian can cover but neither are long term solutions and inevitably what has happened is that they’ve played there for big chunks of the season and it’s not what the team really needs.
Eric Bailly was one of the deadly four summer transfer signings and had a great debut season for Utd. At only 23 Bailly looks like he could be at the heart of the defence for the next 10 years, he has everything you would like in a starting centre back. He’s incredibly physical, athletic, commanding and seems to have great defensive positioning, if he was played next to a ball playing centre back then you could have a destructive pairing for many years going forward.
Jones is undoubtedly a great player, he’s such a smart defender but is also incredibly physical, the perfect centre back to play next to Bailly. Despite that once again you have to question how many more seasons Utd can afford to wait on Jones to stay fit. I really like Jones but he only managed 26 appearances this season, yes he looked good when he was playing and the run of games where he and Rojo played together were probably the best centre back partnership of the season, but 26 just isn’t enough return for a player who if he could stay fit would likely be the starter next to Bailly. He seems like a good guy and he’s the type of player who Mourinho likes but he needs to start spending more time on pitch and less in the physio room.
I have to give it to Rojo, a player who I didn’t really think was Utd class showed this season that he very much was. It was weird seeing Rojo command the left centre back role after underwhelming so much in his first two seasons. To be fair he mainly played at left back in those seasons and when he was utilised in that role this year he looked back to his old shaky self, at centre back he genuinely looked like the real deal, a warrior. Sadly he got a bad injury and I think that he will likely miss most of next year which could see him fall back down the pecking order, still a useful sort of guy to have around even if it is just as a back up.
Smalling managed to regress back to the Smalling of old this season, it’s weird how he can go from being one of the best centre backs in the league to Utd’s fifth best centre back. I’ve never been a fan of Smalling but I really expected more of him this season. It looked like he had developed but it appears that his success was due to the system rather than becoming a better player. If Smalling is willing to be a squad player then I think he’s a good option to have, if he has to play a larger role is then that’s a bad sign.
Daley Blind followed his centre back partner of last season in regressing in performances. Blind is a great utility man and against smaller teams can be really effective as a centre back with his passing ability. Blind’s problem is that he is too slight and small to be a consistent starter under Mourinho’s system, he also wasn’t at all utilised in his best position of central midfield despite Utd being thin at the position for most of the season. I like Blind but I really struggle to see where his future is at Utd. I don’t think he’ll leave this summer but I don’t see him staying in the long term.
Axel Tuanzebe got some play time at the end of the season and looked like he had tons of potential. He didn’t really get a chance at centre back, however played well at both right back and central midfield. At this age game time is incredibly important, Tuanzebe’s future is definitely not at the centre of midfield because his ball skills aren’t good enough, he may flourish with rotational chances for Valencia and will hopefully get a chance at centre back to prove himself. Next season will be a big year to see how Tuanzebe will do in his career, he’s forced his way into the team, now it’s about staying there.
Utd needed a new centre back and they’ve not wasted any time in going out and buying Victor Lindelof. A ball playing centre back who will compliment Eric Bailly perfectly and give great competition to the likes of Phil Jones. Centre back depth is looking solid and all the players are of a good age.
Pogba signed for a world record fee and lots of pressure on his shoulders, it was always going to be hard for him to live up to the transfer fee and if you listened to most pundits he didn’t even come close. In reality Pogba had a very good season, he was fantastic in the Europa League and showed glimpses of genius in the league. Pogba’s passing ability is unreal, he can play every pass in the game, he is incredibly strong on the ball and has great energy in the midfield. The difference between Utd with and without Pogba this season was stark. The one area where I feel Pogba struggled this year was in the big games. Naturally you’d expect a big money talismanic player to show up in the matches which matter the most, yet that wasn’t really the case for Pogba. I feel the issue is that in the big games Mourinho switches to a more defensive structure and this doesn’t compliment Pogba’s style at all. Pogba needs to adapt his game so as to be able to start affecting those games from a defensive perspective, I think that will come with maturity and you did start to see Pogba throw his weight around as the season progressed, next season will be a very big season for him and I expect him to kick on significantly.
Michael Carrick seems to keep going year after year. After the last few seasons I have thought that this is Carrick’s last year, yet back he comes. Carrick has been a great player for the club, he isn’t what he used to be but in a limited role can be very effective. Clearly Carrick’s legs have gone, however when you need a calm head with ten minutes to go, a player to dictate play in a game where you expect to dominate possession or just an experienced old head in what is a young dressing room, Carrick is your man.
Ander Herrera had a difficult first two seasons and this year was very much a make or break season and he very much delivered. In my opinion Herrera was Utd’s best player this season, he was absolutely phenomenal. Herrera was the heart and soul of this Utd side, a little Mourinho on the pitch. His ability to break up play, annoy opposition players, cover a large amount of ground and most importantly deliver a killer pass is what makes him one of the best central midfielders in the league.
Big Felli had a very up and down season, he finished the year very well as a consistent starter who was having a big impact in games, however it’s weird to think that he was booed whilst warming up earlier in the season (something I despise). Fellaini technically isn’t really good enough to play for Utd, but there is no doubt that he can be very effective at what he does. I don’t really see Felli going because he’s a give everything type of player and there’s no doubt that this is exactly what Mourinho wants from his players. Given the chance Fellaini would play on with a broken leg if the team needed him, probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference!
I can’t help but wonder what the point of not sending Fosu-Mensah out on loan was this season. If he’d got a good number of games then it would be the right decision, however he played 11 times and most of those were off the bench. It’s sad for Fosu because he would have got a good run of games after Utd gave up in the league, but a freak injury prevented him from doing so. Much like Tuanzebe next season will be a big one for Fosu, he’s young and has time on his hands but needs game time if he is to develop into the player which has potential has shown.
I did find it odd that Mourinho moved on Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger when there was a distinct lack of depth in the midfield. The lack of rotational options really hurt Utd when the fixtures piled up, four players isn’t enough at this level. Utd really need a holding midfielder and a player who can control possession to replace Carrick in the long term. It feels like every season I write about how Utd need to fix the midfield and it is still a problem. Pogba and Herrera are the two starters, however what is behind them isn’t good enough for a top team.
Mata’s time at Utd has been somewhat of a let down, he never seems to have been able to regain the form which propelled him to twice being Chelsea’s player of the year. It isn’t that Mata is a bad player, he definitely isn’t, it isn’t that he doesn’t try because he definitely does, the problem is that he just doesn’t fit the system. It’s hard for Mata because he has improved on the right wing but you can tell he isn’t comfortable there. He’s too weak on the ball, plays too narrow and his delivery isn’t strong enough. I like Mata and he seems like a good guy to have around the club but like a number of players in the squad he’s very much a square peg in a round hole.
Lingard is a solid squad player, the problem is that he plays more than a solid squad player should. Lingard is 24, yet he still feels and plays like a player much younger. He still needs to put muscle on and his end product really needs to improve. He gives a lot of energy, is fast and is solid defensively but until his end product and his consistency improves I can’t see his role improving. It’s not that I don’t think he is a good player, it’s more that he’s the epitome of a squad player and towards the end of the season he wasn’t playing the role of a squad player.
Mkhitaryan had an incredibly unusual season, he went from being the Bundesliga’s player of the season to not being able to make the bench at Utd, then finally being given a chance and showing blistering form and then finally finishing the season very inconsistently. There is no doubt that Mkhi disappointed this year, he was the most underwhelming of the summer signings by quite some distance. I believe he had the same issues in his first season at Dortmund and there is no doubt that he showed glimpses of brilliance this season, the question is whether he can kick on next season and show why he was one of the best players in the Bundesliga, if he can then it will be like having a new player.
Martial had a really disappointing season, which is a shame after he showed so much potential last year. I assume most of his problems seem to be off field issues as he went through a messy break up with his girlfriend, which wouldn’t have been so bad but due to them having a kid together and her apparently being an attention seeker has been incredibly messy. That distraction as well as a greater focus on defensive work has really hurt Martial this season. There is no doubt that he has tons of ability (even in limited playing time he scored 4 and assisted 6 in the Premier League) but he needs to get his head sorted out. It’s weird because when he joined Utd he seemed very mature for his age, now he seems like a 21 year old who attracts drama and you have to be pretty special for a club to put up with that sort of drama.
Ashley Young is one of those players who can disappear for a couple of months and then show up out of nowhere and put in a reasonable string of performances. You have to give it to Young, he really isn’t good enough to play for Utd but his versatility, effort and willingness to play a bit role has allowed him to stay around longer than he should have. If he’s willing to play such a limited role going forward then I don’t know why he would be moved on, if he receives a bigger role than he currently has then you know there are issues.
Similar to the lack of depth at the centre of midfield, Utd’s attackers don’t have the best depth. It then begs the question why Memphis wasn’t given more of a chance this season. Don’t get me wrong the money from Lyon was good and he had clearly lost his head but it isn’t like there is bundles of talent performing at expected levels to keep him out. Januzaj managed to go on loan to Sunderland and underwhelm more than he has in the past few seasons, it’s sad to see such a bright prospect throw it all away in such a manner, he won’t be at Utd next season. In contrast Andreas Pereira went to Granada and did very well in a team which was relegated, I can only assume there is a difference in levels of desire between the two.
On paper Utd’s attacking options are pretty solid, the problem is that none of these players really showed up this year. Mkhi and Martial should be the wingers going forward but both had inconsistent seasons, Mata isn’t really suited to the role and Lingard and Young should be squad players. Utd really need someone who can come in and push Martial and Mkhi for the starting spots and give the team more depth and options if Mourinho is looking to utilise an attacking three.
Ibrahimovic had a better season than I was expecting. Personally I’ve never been a fan but was pleasantly surprised by his attitude and willingness to play in every game he was needed. He was easily the clubs top goalscorer (not surprising when he played almost every match up front on his own when fit) and had his season shortened by a bad injury, which was a shame. I do think his contribution to the team was often over egged due to who he is (many pundits almost portraying Utd as a one man team), he missed many absolute sitters and cost the team a number of points, his general contribution outwith goals was minimal, despite that I do think the arrogance and swagger he brought the team was much needed this season. He gave Utd a big name and did his bit, it’s a shame he won’t be there next season but I think it’s probably the best for the long term of the club.
Rashford didn’t have the season that many people were probably expecting him to have, it was a struggle. It wasn’t until Ibra’s injury that he really looked like the player he promised to be last season. You could see that Rashford sort of struggled out on the wing, his delivery not quite as good as you’d hope and with a lack of movement from Ibra he often dribbled himself into good positions before being unable to play anyone in. After Ibra went down Rashford came alive, dragging Utd through several games in the Europa League with performances beyond his age, when the club needed him the most he showed up. It will be interesting to see what role Rashford will play next season, I doubt he’ll be the starting striker and will likely find himself mainly utilised on the wing. He’s only 19 and has time on his side, if he improves and impresses on the wing then there is no reason he can’t find himself sneaking back inside to where he really wants to play, as long as his desire levels stay at this height he should be absolutely fine.
Wayne Rooney managed to top last seasons worst season ever with a new worst season ever, smashing last years pitiful performances with a whole new level of low. I would probably be more willing to forgive a player if he wasn’t being paid as if he is one of the best players in the world when in reality he isn’t even a top ten player at his club, however that is exactly the category Rooney falls into. I was glad to see Mourinho drop him, he is an absolute waste of space. His passing is pitiful, he’s useless in front of goal, he’s lost what made him a quality player in his energy and power and worst of all his desire seems to have disappeared. A striker managed 8goals in 39 games, which wouldn’t have been so bad if when he played his performances were good, Rooney’s performances were like watching a fat fuck run about like a headless chicken who had been up for the past twenty four hours on a bender. If Rooney is at the club next season I will be really disappointed because he really isn’t good enough, by far the worst player in the team and a complete waste of space.
Another season has went past and still Utd have real issues up front. Ibra isn’t coming back next season, Rooney is like watching a pensioner who is shit at football play and that only leaves Rashford. Utd really need to sign someone who can come in and at the very least support Rashford, if not two players who can each push one and other to get the best result for the team because the goal returns at the moment really aren’t good enough and the issue this season was not the creation of chances.
I had Utd as the best squad in the league at the start of the season and I still think that’s probably the case, the problem Utd have is that the first eleven just isn’t good enough. The other problem Utd have is that too many players are being inconsistent, especially in the forward positions and that is really hurting the team. For a number of players next season is a make or break season and that probably says a lot about the quality of a number of the players who are currently around the first eleven.
Ideally I think Utd should be looking to bring in a striker, a winger/ten, a centre back (Lindelof), a full back and two central midfielders. Realistically this amount of players aren’t going to come into the team all at once, but it shows the general weakness of some of the positions. I really struggle to see who is scoring the goals next year as things stand. It still feels like there’s a decent amount of dead weight at the club, guys like Rooney and Januzaj should definitely go, if a decent bid comes in for guys like Young, Mata, Smalling and even Shaw then they should be let go as well.
Next season is a big year, it will be the fifth season since Fergie left and a title challenge will be the absolute least expected this season. To be honest this season really wasn’t acceptable but was saved by a Europa win, if I were to describe it in two words it would be inconsistent and underwhelming. Next season the team has to show progression in the Champions League and the Premier League otherwise there will be serious questions asked about the manager. Finishing outside of the top four is absolutely not an option, I guess we’ll see if Mourinho can work his second season wonder once again.