2016/17 was an unusual season for Manchester United. In some respects, important boxes were ticked. Trophies? 3 earned, including one they’ve never won before (and for Manchester United, that is saying something). Champions League football? Also achieved, into the group stage no less, avoiding the nerves of the qualifier that accompanies the “reward” of finishing 4th in the table. But the season was supposed to illustrate far more promise and potential for Old Trafford’s fans to begin dreaming of a realistic return to the days of consistently challenging for the summit of the Premier League, and that’s what didn’t happen. Instead, Mourinho’s side was lamented for waxing and waning between being dull to watch and hard to beat. A mere 5 defeats and 29 goals conceded was a comparable record to title winners Chelsea, but accompanied by 54 goals scored, and 15 draws (10 at home) made for grim football. This wasn’t the script most expected after the ink dried on Paul Pogba’s expensive transfer from Juventus, alongside star veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Manchester United’s prospects for 2017/18 nonetheless remain positive, even if many fans, pundits and former players alike all believe the club has lost some of its footballing identity through its rocky post-Alex Ferguson transition.
Areas of Concern
It’s clear where Manchester United’s strengths lie. Typical of a Mourinho team, the defence was extremely effective at strangling opposition chance creation and creativity. They seldom capitulated too, conceding more 1 goal in only 5 Premier League matches across the entire campaign. Talisman David De Gea was reliable, if a touch less impressive than in previous seasons. The rotation between Eric Bailly, Antonio Valencia, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and Phil Jones was both effective and unpredictable. The Red Devils also made the least defensive errors (8) of any side in 2016/17. Given their runs to the League Cup and Europa League finals in addition to the league calendar, the demands on the squad was considerable. Mourinho rotated extensively to respond accordingly, with 21 players making 10 or more appearances.
The concerns appear both obvious and complex to solve. Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was highly productive with 28 goals in all competitions, but it’s a considerable distance to Juan Mata (10), Marcus Rashford (11) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (11) as a supportive goal threat across a season total of 64 games. Surprisingly, this is also not necessarily a function of a lack of creativity. Despite the claims that Manchester United appear less attack minded than rivals, they created more chances (447) in their Premier League campaign than champions Chelsea (446) and 5th placed Arsenal (431). For additional perspective, Bournemouth, who scored 1 league goal more (55) than the Red Devils (54), did so with 111 less chances. There’s a clear issue of chance quality, conversion rate, and the malaise runs a lot deeper than some broader interpretation of the tactical setup used by their experience Portuguese manager. Transfer activities will hence need to respond to all these issues; creativity, getting more out of certain underperforming talents (particularly Mkhitaryan and Martial), and keeping an eye on replacing aging stars (Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Carrick, in particular).
For the moment, the risk of Manchester United losing a couple of their most prized stars seems to be at bay. Links suggesting the exits of David De Gea and Ander Herrera have calmed, though much could still manifest before the kick off of season 2017/18. Instead, the exit door appears ajar for much of their fringe talent. In one respect, this includes veterans like Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney. Young has struggled with injuries, but has also found himself far from the matchday squads and may well seek a move to ensure the twilight of his career features a bit more football than he’s experienced in recent years. Rooney experienced considerably more time on the bench this past season than he’s typically used to, and this has reportedly made the England international consider his options. Meanwhile, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s one season flirtation came to an end recently, with his future unclear while his rehabilitation continues in recovering from a cruciate ligament injury.
The futures of relative youngsters Anthony Martial, Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw are far more complicated. Martial has denied rumours of departure via his social media accounts, but it remains to be seen if he could be tempted to reboot his career elsewhere under a manager who’s playing style may be more congruent with his talents. The Belgian prospect has been unable to impress for any sides he’s played for recently (Manchester United, on loan at Dortmund and Sunderland) and allegedly has admirers from Real Sociedad. Luke Shaw’s Red Devils career has not only been marred by injury but criticism of his attitude as well. While no potential suitors have presented themselves, it’s as yet unclear if Shaw will be given more chances to prove himself ahead of Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo or a potential new signing at left back.
Manchester United started their transfer activities fairly quickly in completing the deal for Benfica centre back Victor Lindelof. The young Swede impressed in 2 seasons in Lisbon, and could form a formidable partnership alongside Eric Bailly if he can make the adjustment to English football. The most persistent transfer rumour suggests that Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic may shift across to Manchester red; it’s a move that makes a lot of sense given the Serbian’s good performances under Mourinho 2 season back, and provides the Portuguese additional tactical options in midfield to eventually replace veteran Michael Carrick.
Other links have been less reliable, but appear to have a shred of potential. Interest in Nelson Semedo from Benfica isn’t new; but Manchester United may prefer to see the young right back play a little more before securing him to replace Antonio Valencia. Alvaro Morata appears a strong bet to replace Ibrahimovic up front, but it remains to be seen if his future at Manchester United is not perhaps highly dependent on who the European champions choose to sign to take his place at Real Madrid. There are also claims of interest in Celtic left back Kieran Tierney, perhaps as a long term replacement for Luke Shaw.