Manchester United 2016/17 season preview


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As anyone who remotely follows football knows, Manchester United have fallen from their lofty standards. Three years under two managers (and briefly, a caretaker manager) since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, have returned the three worst finishes to a season in the last 25 years. This, combined with some mind-numbingly dour football, lack of direction, dismembering of playing style and ethos, ineptitude in transfer activity and general cluelessness has led to fans getting disenchanted with the club’s progress (or lack thereof).

Signings

With the axe finally falling on Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho of Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid fame, has been appointed manager of Manchester United, with an agenda of restoring United to former glory. The self-anointed “Special One” has been quick to restore order to the chaos. Gone are the days of David “Dithering Dave” Moyes, in terms of transfer activity. He has been out of the blocks quickly, highlighting areas that required attention and quickly moving in the transfer market to close those gaps.

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Eric Bailly, the young Villarreal center back brings speed, height and strength in a position that is vital for United’s title hopes. Daley Blind filling in last season left many fans nervous every time a set piece was conceded, or a long ball over the top was played. Although he played admirably given his obvious constraints, a long term solution needed to be found and Bailly certainly fits the bill. In addition, strong center backs are the cornerstone of a Mourinho team, and Blind does not fit the description.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, serial winner and bona fide maverick, has been brought in on a free transfer. While his age and suitability to the premier league remain credible concerns, his pedigree and ability are not in question. As someone who has won 13 league titles in the last 15 years, spread over 6 clubs and 4 countries, he brings a wealth of experience and a knack to lift a team’s morale instantly. The fact that he just had his best scoring season yet, with 52 goals and 16 assists in 56 games, should allay fears of his deteriorating physical fitness. In addition, his ability from set pieces is a useful weapon in his arsenal.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenian attacking midfielder, is a valuable addition to a midfield that is sorely lacking in goals. His ability on and off the ball gives the team ample options in attack. Further, it plugs a hole in the right side of midfield that has been filled unsuccessfully by Juan Mata. If he is able to repeat his previous season performances for Borussia Dortmund, United fans are in for a treat.

With United having gotten a majority of their transfer business done early, it leaves little scope for the media to speculate on transfer activity. In his first interview after being unveiled as manager, Mourinho made his intention clear to sign 4 new players, of which 3 have been brought on board already. From media reports, Paul Pogba, the United youth academy player that got away, has been identified by the club to lead the club’s midfield for the next ten years. It would surely excite United fans bereft of a superstar’s presence in the past few years. However, one should remain wary of getting their hopes up, having been burnt by the past few transfer window pursuits of Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas and Dani Alves, all of whom used United to get fatter paychecks or move to different clubs.

Other options to fill that central midfield berth include Blaise Matuidi, rumored to have traveled to England earlier this summer to complete a medical, and surplus to PSG’s requirement with the recent acquisition of Krychowiak from Sevilla. Nemanja Matic is very much a known quantity to Mourinho and surplus at Chelsea, with their signing of Kante from Leicester, and could be a possible target. Names like Verratti, Hamsik, Kroos, Vidal and Moussa Dembele have all been making the rounds as well; however, the likelihood that their current clubs will let them leave remains low. Ruben Neves could be a possible target, and with Jorge Mendes as his agent, United are likely to be linked with him.

Departures

Mourinho likes to operate with a small group of dependable players, and this will surely mean the cull for a host of players who played under Van Gaal when injuries struck. Victor Valdes (was surprisingly still a United player) and Nick Powell have already found new clubs after their current contracts expired. Fringe youth team graduates unlikely to make the grade will be the first to be shown the way out. These include (but are not restricted to) Sam Johnstone, Tyler Blackett, Guillermo Varela and Will Keane, all of whom are too old for the U-21 team, and unlikely to feature with the first team.

The more interesting decisions will be over the established first team players who will not fit into Mourinho’s plans and style of play. Fellaini is no one’s idea of a central midfielder, and is unlikely to be kept for his role as a backup battering ram centre forward. Rojo does not possess the defensive nous that Mourinho requires from his defenders. Schweinsteiger might find himself on the bench with the arrival of a new central midfielder, the presence of Schneiderlein, Herrera and Carrick (who got his contract renewed). Antonio Valencia is unlikely to be shoehorned into a right back role, and has too many players ahead of him in the pecking order in midfield.

With all of them facing intense competition in their respective positions -Wilson, McNair, Love, Goss, Riley and Weir are all likely to spend more time with the U-21 team than the first team.

Depay, Pereira and Januzaj have to prove their worth this season, and will need to step up. While their talent is not in question, Mourinho does not have time for players who are not aware of their defensive responsibilities in the team. Young and Lingard should retain roles in the squad for being able to follow the manager’s instructions. T Daley Blind’s technical ability and versatility in multiple positions might yet grant him a squad position. Rooney’s captaincy ensures that he will play under Mourinho atleast for a season, and Mourinho would exhaust whatever fire is left in him, although, restoring Rooney to his old self might prove to be one of Mourinho’s biggest challenges. With Mourinho having made clear that he wishes to keep Mata, it will be up to him to lift his game to the levels he achieved at Chelsea, while not foregoing his newfound desire to help the team while defending, which was the reason behind his acrimonious departure from Chelsea.

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The Line Up

Mourinho’s Chelsea was built in a robust 4-2-3-1 formation, and a similar trend could be seen in United’s friendly against Wigan and Dortmund.

Much will depend on how quickly Bailly can adjust to EPL’s pace, as well as how fit can Jones remain. The centre-back pairing will be crucial for United if at all they are looking to play for honours this season, and a reliable partner to Smalling will be equally crucial in that aspect. Mourinho’s requirement for defensively solid full backs capable of overlapping the midfield has been fulfilled in Shaw and Darmian.

Carrick will be encouraged to pass forward and be more direct to the attackers, a welcome change from the Van Gaal days of sideways passing that made poor use of the Geordie’s abilities. A more dynamic midfielder will be played alongside him, either in the form of a new signing, or the existing Herrera. The Spaniard can move the ball quickly during transitions, as well as arrive late in the box to finish. Without the ball, both midfielders will be required to tuck in and protect the back four, something that they can both do in their own ways. Schneiderlein is likely to be preferred in big games to smother opposition midfields, in place of Carrick.

The forward positions have a host of players vying for a spot in the first team. While Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Martial and Ibrahimovic remain Mourinho’s first choice, Mata, Rashford, Young, Depay, Lingard, Januzaj and Pereira can all expect to feature in a bloated fixture that includes Europa League games. United’s attackers will be expected to move intelligently between the lines, and play on the half-turn as they receive the ball. Ibrahimovic will be expected to hold the ball up, and bring others into play with his vision and passing, in addition to being the focal point of attack. While no longer having the pace to run channels and stretch defences, he will rely on the service and movement from the attacking midfielders to create space for himself.

Manchester United’s season promises to be an exciting one, with a new manager, a host of new faces, and a change in direction of the club. While the new signings will be expected to prove their worth, onus remains on the existing squad members to show a marked improvement from their last season’s performances, if United are to challenge for the title.

In Mourinho, they have a manager who has a proven record of getting the best out of his players, and making the whole better than the sum of its parts – truly the hallmark of a good manager. Given his past record, however, one remains skeptical if he can manage to suppress his safety-first instincts and deliver a style of play that is agreeable to the United fanbase. With Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte arriving to join Wenger, Pocchetino, Ranieri and Klopp in the EPL, this season presents an interesting amalgam of managerial styles and talents. Seldom has there been such uncertainty over the top spots, and United will have to perform at their best to prevail. An intriguing season ahead!

 


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Vamsi Krishna

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