As the new season approaches, a successful transfer period, coupled with the return of Champions League football, has brought excitement back to Manchester United. The pre-season showed glimpses of what this team is capable of achieving, but also raised several questions about the squad.
Manchester United 2017-18 Season Preview
José Mourinho’s Impact
The past season raised many questions about whether or not José Mourinho was still an elite manager. Frequently hampered by injuries, the Portugese struggled to find a consistent starting 11. He went some way to silencing his critics, however, in the Europa League final, as his side’s performance was too much to handle for Ajax.
Despite bringing in four players last summer, Mourinho was still adapting to life at Manchester United. He now has spent over a year with the Red Devils and knows the current squad better than anyone else. The players signed this summer his own choices to address weaknesses he saw in last year’s team. Anything less than a push for the Premier League title and a deep run in the Champions League may put Mourinho’s job on the line.
The biggest of last year’s summer signings, Paul Pogba’s first full season at Manchester United was full of ups and downs. He improved drastically towards the season’s end, but the 24-year-old’s mid-season form was less than impressive.
While Pogba is not responsible for his transfer fee, he is still unquestionably Manchester United’s most valuable player. If this is the season in which the Red Devils begin their return to elite status, the Frenchman is going to have to be the catalyst.
In classic Mourinho style, Manchester United were very strong defensively last year; only Tottenham conceded fewer goals. Despite this, Spurs earned 17 points more than United and had a goal difference 35 goals better. This difference is due to United’s drawing an incredible 15 games—their most in the Premier League era.
The cause of the never-ending supply of draws was due to the team’s lack of cutting edge going forward. Romelu Lukaku has been brought in to replace the void left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he should be able to provide a large number of match-winning displays, but it will be up to the supporting cast to increase its contributions if United want to start picking up more wins.
Despite last season’s lack of offensive potency, there is still no shortage of attacking options. Lukaku will be the focal point, but Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard will be willing runners alongside him. All three youngsters are blessed with speed and skill, which can damage defences from the wings or through the middle.
Heading into the new season, this Manchester United team has a depth and versatility fans have not seen in years. If Mourinho is able to alternate the squad consistently, without a drop in performance quality, it could prove to be their advantage over many opponents.
In defence, this Manchester United team has every type of player. Daley Blind and Victor Lindelöf represent the ball-playing centre-backs; Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo the ball-winners. Despite falling down the pecking order, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones provide more of a hybrid style, capable of filling any role. In addition, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia are willing runners and comfortable in attack, making a 3-5-2 formation a strong possibility.
The squad’s depth is just as prominent in midfield. While Pogba is the face of the midfield, he can be surrounded by a multitude of playing styles. Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are the traditional number tens; Ander Herrera and Andreas Pereira can be effective box-to-box midfielders; Nemanja Matic and Michael Carrick will start attacks from deep. If Mourinho is able to play the right midfield combination against each different opposition, United will be very difficult to beat.
Mourinho has a manager’s dream of not being sure who to select each match. If he is able to make the right choice in formation, along with personnel, a successful season looks likely.
While Mourinho has strength in numbers at Manchester United, his core players are all relatively young. Despite a smattering of Champions League appearances among the squad, few players in the Red Devils’ ranks have much experience of long seasons with non-stop competitive matches. While playing midweek in the Europa League last year was good preparation, the level of competition does not compare to that of the Champions League.
This inexperience will put more pressure on Pogba. At just 24 years of age, he has already appeared in the final of the Champions League, Europa League, and European Championship. He, along with the elder statesmen in the dressing room, will need to lead by example.
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