In 1999, Manchester United completed their famous treble – winning the Premier League, FA Cup and the Champions League under Alex Ferguson. The legendary Scot was knighted after achieving this feat of footballing dominance.
Ask any United supporter you know about that era and they’ll remember goals galore from the four-pronged strike force of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer. The other thing they’ll speak of is a team that never thought it wouldn’t win the match. Such was the quality of the squad and the sheer bull-headedness passed down from the gaffer from Govan.
This season was not like that…
While I admire the Mourinho mentality that says, “if we’re in a competition, we’ll try to win it”, I don’t think any United fan will look back on 2016/17 as another treble season.
With all apologies to Liverpool and what some dubbed the ‘Mickey Mouse treble’, this campaign is just barely a double. I mean, the Community Shield isn’t a major trophy, is it?
And now that Arsene Wenger has become a specialist in winning the FA Cup, our League Cup victory leaves a lot to be desired. This competition used to be one where we would play a second XI or even a bunch of prospects. There were always bigger priorities.
There was so much was made of Mourinho’s cunning strategy of winning the Europa League to qualify for the Champions League – but let’s not forget that this was only because we could never get going in the league.
Our dire, dire home form really left the Portuguese with no choice. There was a truckload of adidas money at stake, not to mention the need to recruit well again this summer. You’re not going to attract the likes of Antoine Griezmann with what was surely the worst 25-match undefeated run ever seen in English football.
Hell, had we won five of those 1-1 draws at home instead, we would still have only finished third!
So, while United finish the season with more silverware in the cabinet there is much more to be done. Only by winning the Premier League again will do. And if Mourinho feels he’s never worked harder than he has this season, just wait – because our rivals will be thinking they need to win it as well.
Let’s look at what needs doing over the summer and into next season.
The prevailing sentiment is that United need no less than four new players – a centre half, a defensive midfielder and two attackers.
If Mourinho intends to challenge on all fronts I’d suggest that he may need more – unless he feels that some of the younger players are ready for more responsibility. Most supporters feel that Axel Tuanzebe, Tim Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira [who had a promising loan spell in Spain] could fit this category.
Complaints of fixture congestion from the manager were not well met by supporters or observers. United are expected to have the depth and quality to cope with the demands of competing on multiple fronts.
It looks like we’re going to be just fine in goal, with many feeling our 1-2 punch of De Gea and Romero is one of the best pairings in football. Qualifying for the UCL seems to be enough for De Gea to ignore Real Madrid for another season, and Mourinho really rates young compatriot Joel Pereira as well.
United finished the season with the second-best defensive record in the PL, and for the life of me, I don’t know how…
I suppose it was down to Mourinho’s tactical stability because it sure wasn’t down to personnel.
Antonio Valencia has nailed down the right-back berth and the team looks unbalanced when he’s not playing.
At the heart of the back line, newcomer Eric Bailly has reminded supporters what a proper centre-half looks like with his pace and athleticism. The Ivorian has shown that neither Phil Jones nor Chris Smalling is fit for anything more than supporting roles. Daley Blind managed 39 appearances this season, but I don’t consider him to be any better than a squad player either.
Spare a thought for Marcos Rojo, who managed to make a starting role his own before his horrible injury. He will obviously return at some point, but a purchase is still required.
It is thought that MUFC are interested in bringing Michael Keane back from Burnley. While I admire the player I’m not certain that he is the world-class solution required. Mind you, there are not many players of that calibre available, so this might be the best we can hope for.
Left back was not supposed to be an issue this season, but it seems Luke Shaw is working the manager’s patience. This is not the first time the young Englishman has fallen afoul of the boss – as he had issues with Louis van Gaal as well. Shaw was so far out of favour that Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian were often preferred even when he was fit.
Were we to buy a full back this summer, I would not be surprised.
Shaw was not the only player that Mourinho openly criticized over the course of the season. While many supporters are not keen on a manager publically calling out individuals, I’m of the opinion that many of these players were deserving of brickbats. Many of them have been underachieving for far too long.
The Manchester United midfield has been an Achilles heel for a long time, but things are starting to stabilize.
Regardless of the fee, Paul Pogba is young, dynamic and only going to get better. The Frenchman showed signs of being able to grab matches by the scruff of the neck, and more of that will be required. Supporters do not doubt his quality, and neither should you.
Ander Herrera is the first player in years to unseat De Gea as player of the year. The Spaniard is a fan favourite as well – he always says the right thing and is never found wanting for effort on the pitch. Many tout him as a future skipper.
Michael Carrick has just signed a new one-year contract and will get a testimonial this year. If Rooney leaves, that would leave Carrick as the last holdover from the 2008 Champions League winning squad. He may best be used in the Champions League next season, as the pace and power of the league find him wanting of late.
Despite not always having the confidence of the support, Marouane Fellaini has had the confidence his past three managers. He proved to be important to Mourinho this season as well, in fact, his 47 appearances with United this season was the most he has managed since his arrival from Everton.
All that said, I’m of the feeling that one midfield destroyer must be on the shopping list this summer. Seeing as the manager pioneered the ‘Makelele’ role tactically, I’m hoping that he’s spotted the player who can do the dirty work that will allow Pogba and Herrera to drive the team forward and create chances.
So, now we address the big problem.
This team has struggled for goals since Ferguson’s last season when we scored 86. The trend has continued under Mourinho, with this season’s total of 54 leaving us 8th in the competition in goal-scoring.
The lack of goals led to an unbelievable 15 draws, and there were matches where it seemed United could play all day and not score – especially on those occasions when Zlatan was not playing.
In fact, only four players were in double digits this season [in all competitions] – Ibrahimović , Rashford and Mkhitaryan  and Mata . Noticeable in their absence from this list are Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
Rooney has been rather elegantly phased out this season. The record-breaking scorer for both United and England will almost certainly leave for new pastures this summer. He has served the club well, but can no longer be relied on to provide offense. Getting his wages off the books will make recruiting easier.
Martial struggled for both form and his place this season after being MUFC’s top scorer in the previous campaign. The talk was that he was having marital problems that he may have been taking with him onto the pitch. This is understandable for a man of 21, and there is no doubt that he will not only stay but continue to improve.
Speaking of falling afoul of the boss, Henrikh Mkhitaryan had a stop-start season. But the Armenian showed his class in the Europa League especially and will no doubt be an important player going forward.
Despite his 10-goal contribution, plus his playmaking ability – I’m not sure where Juan Mata will fit in next season. He’s well-liked and a consummate pro, but he’s never been pacy and I feel he will find it hard to be a regular starter after summer reinforcements are brought in.
Marcus Rashford has established himself as a first-teamer this year and while he can’t be relied on as a primary striker, he too will continue to get better. His work ethic has been praised and he even began taking set pieces in the later part of the season.
Jesse Lingard is another academy product who’s made good. The manager likes his energy and he does have big goals in his game. I do wonder if he has reached his peak, but at the least, he’s shown to be a willing squad player.
And then there’s Zlatan.
Prior to his injury, the thought was that the towering Swede would play a smaller role next season, but continue to cajole and inspire his team-mates. There is no doubt of his quality as a player but it is more likely that his leadership had as big an impact this season as his goals.
This is a player that has won almost everything there is but pushes himself and those around him to higher levels – the levels that are required to win trophies.
His influence will be sorely missed, as it looks unlikely that he’ll play a big part next year. I can only hope that like Cantona before him, he will have taught some lessons to the younger players that they will take on board.
Two attackers will be needed as both Rooney and Zlatan are not expected to be around for the new season. I believe Griezmann would be an excellent addition, although I see him shunted out to right wing if we sign a true number 9.
If both new additions can score 20 or more I think the others can chip in enough to see United winning more matches.
So, what can be expected in 2017/18?
With all due respect to the ‘second-tier’ trophies that we’ve bagged, the time has come for another league challenge and a run in the Champions League. It’s always nice to win the FA Cup [as Van Gaal can attest], but this should not be a priority.
Mourinho will spend heavily again and expectations will be higher. It’s my belief that he can be the manager to get the job done – now the players must believe as well.