Four years ago, Manchester United’s 20th Premier League title triumph was bittersweet as they also had to say goodbye to the man who brought United to the summit after taking charge of the club in 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, no one would have expected United to fall in such a manner from the peak they have proudly sat on for over two decades.
In Sir Alex’s final half-decade, United finished 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 1st in the league. In the years since, the club have finished 7th, 4th, 5th, and 6th. Quite a fall, I must say.
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The 2017/18 season will be United’s fifth season since they won their last Premier League title. And the onus is on Jose Mourinho to lift the ‘Sleeping Giants’ and bring them back to the top, where they belong.
After a successful first season with the club, having won the Community Shield, the Capital One Cup and the Europa League, Mourinho will be looking to make United genuine title contenders for the first time since Sir Alex left the club.
History is with Jose. Mourinho has won a domestic title everywhere he has managed in his second season.
However it won’t be easy at all and his second season in charge will be spent, again, amidst the fiercest battle for the Top 4 that the Premier League may ever have had, with all clubs financially stronger and have splashed the cash to strengthen their squad.
How do I think United will fare this time round?
Transfer Dealings :
Major ins: Victor Lindelof (Benfica, £30.7m), Romelu Lukaku (Everton, £90m), Nemanja Matic (Chelsea, £40m).
Major outs: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (released), Wayne Rooney (Everton, undisclosed), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad, undisclosed), Sam Johnstone (Aston Villa, loan),Borthwick-Jackson(Leeds,loan),Timothy Fosu-Mensah(Crystal Palace, loan)
Mourinho had said a few months back that he had already understood United’s weaknesses and had prepared his transfer list in as early as March.
And true to his word, all the signings United have made so far has more or less addressed the main problems they faced last season.
In Lindelof they have a solid central defender who is more than capable of carrying the ball, something that United have sorely missed since the days of Rio Ferdinand.
However, judging by his showings in pre-season, it does look like Lindelof will need a bit of time to adjust to his new surroundings, and can take comfort from the fact that club legends like Vidic and Evra didn’t have a good start to their United careers either.
In Nemanja Matic they have a solid holding midfielder who not only can stabilise the United midfield and is a worthy successor to Michael Carrick, his presence would also allow Pogba to roam further forward into the opposition box, allowing him to express himself in the way he knows.
In Romelu Lukaku they have a proven goalscorer and an ideal replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. United scored just 54 goals last season and their poor conversion rate is the reason why they were left loitering in the sixth place.
No one has scored more goals than Lukaku at the age of 24 and with quality players around him, one can guarentee goals from the big Belgian.
Even if Lukaku struggles to find the net, he is likely to help bring more out of some of the other attackers in the team, which will help balance out the pros and cons. Best case scenario for Lukaku is therefore very good, while worst case scenario is still likely to be relatively good too.
Manchester City aside, United have fared much better than the rest of the top 6 teams in this summer transfer season in terms of squad improvement, and it is likely that United would make one or more signings, with Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and PSG’s Aurier on their radar.
Preseason Form :
Unlike United’s last pre-season tour which was in China, their US tour was much more organised and planned. And of course, with better performances. Apart from the 1-0 defeat against Barcelona, United won the rest of their preseason fixtures, with victories against LA Galaxy, Salt Lake City, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Valerenga and Sampdaria.
Mourinho tried different formation systems and with different combinations of players to get a sense of how his team gelled together. The performances have widely been good, with Rashford , Lingard and Martial emerging as the players who impressed the most. What will also have pleased the United boss is how well Lukaku has fit into the team.
Having a main man up top who can actually run for 90 minutes has led to a properly counter-attacking style to take hold by the players, Rashford and Martial in particular, as they are able to break forward in a way far more suited to them than the slow build-up they’ve had to endure over the last couple of years.
United fans were also given an insight into how Matic would operate within the team , having played 45 minutes against Sampdoria.
With Matic operating in front of the defence, Herrera and Pogba had more freedom to venture into the opposition half to create problems to the opposition defence. Rest be assured, United fans can expect a better season than the last, in terms of Premier League standings as well as in general performances.
Romelu Lukaku :
In retrospect, I believe that Jose Mourinho has made the right move by opting to bring in the Belgian striker rather than push pointlessly to bring in Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.
In all fairness the Spaniard is undoubtedly a talented striker, but Premier League is whole lot different from the Liga or Serie A, so it wouldn’t have been very surprising if Morata does take a bit of time to adjust to the demands of the Premier League.
And time is something Mourinho cannot afford much at the moment. Mourinho needs to build on his successful first season at the club and United would be expected to mount a serious challenge for the League title.
In a way, Romelu Lukaku is an ideal replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Apart from offering the same attributes of quality hold up play, strength and the knack of scoring goals, Mourinho has a striker who has the capability to run for 90 minutes.
At 24, Lukaku is at the apt age to peak in terms of his footballing career and with the likes of Mkhitaryan and Pogba among others to provide service, the Belgian is definitely someone to watch out for and is definitely a strong contender for the Golden Boot this season.
Perhaps many would agree United’s best bit of business was to bring Nemanja Matic to United from Stamford Bridge. With someone solid to shield the defence, Pogba will have more freedom to venture into the opposition half, something which he hasn’t done enough last season.
In all fairness, Pogba hit the woodwork a total of 9 times and could have had as much as 10 assists more if United forwards were more clinical in their finishing.
Already dubbed as a future Manchester United captain by Mourinho, the best of Pogba in a red shirt is yet to come and it’s highly likely this season could see the Frenchman burst into life.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan :
It was not a smooth beginning for the Armenian since his 30 million move to Old Trafford. After being side lined due to injury concerns and lack of form, it took some time for Mourinho to trust ‘Mkhi’ to start a game again.
The Armenian saved his best performances for the Europa League as he scored 6 goals overall in the competition, some of them crucial ones including one in the final.
After having an excellent pre-season tour in the US, United fans can expect to see the best out of him this season and is definitely someone to watch out for in the upcoming Premier League season.
United have a comparatively comfortable beginning to the season, with West Ham first on the cards later this weekend followed by Swansea City and Leicester.
United’s first challenging fixture is against Everton on 17 Sept and a match against arch rivals Liverpool couple of weeks later.
The fixtures are relatively easy on United at the start and United should be able to utilise it to make a great start in what promises to be a challenging and exciting campaign.
United’s biggest challenge is to avoid injury concerns as much as possible and avoid the injury related problems they faced last season. Mourinho will also have to keep in mind the challenges of coping with the fixtures.
With Champions League this time round for the Reds, it’s important for Mourinho to keep his squad fit, especially since a lot of United’s defenders are injury prone.
Expecting United to return to the finishes of Fergie’s final days may be a bit too much to ask for now, but for Mourinho he has to at least avoid the Van Gaalian combination of unentertaining football and mediocre results. But one thing is absolutely certain.
On paper, Manchester United is definitely a serious contender to win the Premier League this season.