The 2015-16 Manchester United season truly had it all.
There were some great goals and results and some baffling substitutions. We had some exciting young players breaking through and an evacuation at Old Trafford. Hell, even ‘sex masochism’ and an FA Cup triumph.
It was mostly exasperating, but it was never boring.
We began with a sense of moving forward, albeit with tiny steps. The previous campaign had seen MUFC finish fourth and qualify for a coveted Champions League place. We were back where we belonged and were supposed to kick on in year two of the Louis van Gaal ‘philosophy’.
The summer window saw a cull of players that did not fit the Dutchman’s mold – Angel Di Maria, Chicharito, Nani, Rafael, Robin van Persie and Jonny Evans. And there were some promising additions in the form of Anthony Martial, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian.
This was truly LVG’s squad now, with many senior fringe players moved on so he could work with a smaller squad and use more academy players.
August saw a 5-match undefeated run, followed by a slip up at pesky Swansea City. This was followed by a mostly terrific September with five wins [including a 3-1 defeat of Liverpool], the one blemish was the horrific Luke Shaw injury during the Champions League loss to PSV.
October 17 saw us notch our 10th win in all competitions [away to Everton] and you could argue that things were on track. Van Gaal never tired of reminding us all that we were indeed at the top of the table during this spell.
No one really seemed to be bothered about being knocked out of the League Cup on penalties after a flaccid stalemate with Middlesbrough. There were bigger fish to fry.
That win at Everton was actually the start of the most unconvincing 11-match unbeaten run most of us have ever seen. There were 5 nil-nil draws during this stretch, and the habit of playing sterile, unadventurous and mostly scoreless football at Old Trafford really took hold.
By December 8 we were out of the Champions League, with the first of four defeats on the spin that would have many supporters calling for Van Gaal’s head.
It took merely 14 matches to win our first 10 games in 2015-16. It would take 27 for the next 10 victories.
How Louis Van Gaal survived this period is a point of discussion. José Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea in mid-December and was aggressively batting his eyelashes at Ed Woodward. My personal feeling is that had the switch been made sooner we would have finished in those cherished Champions League places – but we’ll never know for sure.
LVG had the support of the football board who were likely trying to keep the impression that we are not a ‘sacking’ kind of club. Sirs Ferguson and Charlton were thought to be using their influence to give Van Gaal more time.
So the Dutchman stayed and fought. He blamed injuries and was forced to integrate 14 Academy players into the team during the course of the season. This was attributed to Van Gaal’s reputation as a ‘youth genius’ – but for me was more down to selling on a bunch of senior pros and not replacing them. A squad that used to have two, international quality players for every position now had mostly one senior player of varied quality and one kid from the U21 setup.
Some of these players – Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, and Tim Fosu-Mensah – look to have bright futures. But with the exception of the young England striker, all were supplanted from the first team as soon as their senior counterpart was fit again.
This led to some typically unusually squad decisions from LVG – such as playing Marcos Rojo ahead of a clearly superior CBJ and the omission of Memphis from the FA Cup Final squad after the player had been included all season long.
By Saint Patrick’s Day, we were out of the UEFA Cup after a loss to eventual finalists, Liverpool. Once again, going out with a whimper in front of a fired-up Theatre of Dreams.
Champions League placing ended up being decided on goal difference, and with our meagre 49-goal offensive output we were never going to close the gap with City. We ended the season on 66 points, 4 fewer than the previous season. One can only point to all the draws and wonder which ones cost us the chance to finish higher.
Fifteen points off of champions Leicester City, but only five behind runners-up Arsenal – things could have been so different with only a little more attacking nous.
Not even the promised trophy was enough to extend Van Gaal’s reign. The FA Cup triumph saw us return level with Arsenal on 12 trophies and saw many of our veteran players claim a medal that they had been missing.
Best of all, I think the experience will benefit the younger players who hopefully have gained a taste for silverware.
To reflect on Louis Van Gaal’s legacy, my feeling is that he was truly a ‘man out of time’. He has a tremendous CV and he did some positive things during his spell at Old Trafford. He had the personality for the role, that’s for sure.
But if reports are to be believed, he was also stubborn in his ways and not the best man manager for the modern footballer. There was a time when a gaffer could get away with this approach, but he seemed very much to be a ‘love me or hate me’ kind. His rigid ways have stifled some very talented footballers and he was unable to send his United sides out with any sense of identity. His ongoing ‘philosophy’ bafflegab seemed only to convince himself – not many of the players seemed to be on board, and we are still not feared the way we used to be.
Now it’s José Mourinho’s team.
He inherits some decent players, but only one of true world class. That’s three-time player of the season David de Gea.
There are a few of strong potential – Chris Smalling, Martial, Rashford and the like. And there’s debate over whether younger players will get a chance. People point to Mourinho’s use of Chelsea academy players, but let’s be honest – not many of them [since full-kit and race relations enthusiast John Terry] have turned out to be Premier League quality anyway. I’m willing to give the Portuguese the benefit of the doubt here.
Mourinho still has a helluva lot of work to do, though.
Goalkeeping is sorted, as I think Dave stays. He has half of a solid back four [Smalling and Shaw] with question marks at centre-half and right-back.
There are question marks in midfield after a season that started with big signings [Schmidfield!] turned into a quagmire again. Can Wayne Rooney do a job here and can José get the best out of Ander Herrera and Schneiderlin? For that matter, what happens to Basti? We’re already being linked with some upgrades here, and that’s no surprise.
As far as the attack, I think the proposed signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is exactly what we need as a club. He is a massive ego, and will bring leadership and swagger that has been missing at this club for a long time now.
Anthony Martial will soon be world-class and hopefully, Memphis will be, too. We’re still light someone to play on the right of the attack and I don’t think Juan Mata will be lining up there next season. Is this a chance for Jorge Mendes client and Real Madrid benchwarmer James Rodriguez? I’d sanction that move if it were up to me.
As for departures, I don’t disagree with any of the results from the recent MEN poll:
I think Rashford’s stunning emergence has left Wilson no choice. Young could still do a job if played in position, but he’s 30 and may seek full-time football. Jones and Rojo are squad player quality on their best days and Fellaini is nothing more than a furry battering ram with no best position.
I’d add Antonio Valencia to this list, another 30-year-old who is bench quality. And spare a hug for Juan Mata – who despite being one of football’s nicest guys is probably already pondering a return to Spain at a club where Mourinho can’t find him.
Here’s hoping for a summer where we wrap up our business early, everyone comes home fit from the Copa and Euros and where the ‘Special One’ can start to weave his trophy-winning magic. And maybe, just maybe change his ways enough to stick around longer than three years…