[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he dust has barely settled on Manchester United’s Europa League victory and already attention is turning towards next season. In some ways that is what the final against Ajax was all about – setting the tone for José Mourinho’s second campaign. United’s League Cup triumph, combined with the only trophy missing from the Old Trafford cabinet just about offset a mediocre sixth-place finish in the Premier League. It allows the manager to look ahead with a degree of security. So what now?
The Europa League final was merely one game in a season where United played over 60, but such is the nature of football that its outcome hugely defined the club’s outlook for the season yet to come. As well as the undeniable prestige of winning a European trophy, the 2-0 win in Stockholm returns the Reds to the glamour of the Champions League, and spares Mourinho’s blushes after he abandoned all attempts at finishing in the top-four.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Europa League final was merely one game in a season where United played over 60, but such is the nature of football that its outcome hugely defined the club’s outlook for the season yet to come.[/blockquote]
After all, the manager was at pains to point out that no silverware is handed out for finishing fourth, and the majority of fans will have enjoyed the more United-esque route taken in returning to Europe’s top table. But make no mistake, Mourinho’s team was a defeat away from heading into next season in much the same position as last year, and Mourinho will be aware that expectations will increase come August. There are considerable improvements to be made if the Reds are to once again challenge for the title.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was undoubtedly United’s talisman this campaign, racking up a wealth of important goals and generally bringing a swagger back to the side. The Swede’s knee ligament injury means there are serious doubts as to whether he will pull on the red shirt again. His age and astronomical salary will test whether the club is willing to keep him on the books during what could be a long and uncertain recovery process. The key task for Mourinho is to ensure that Zlatan’s goals are not only replaced, but augmented.
Marcus Rashford has shown signs that he is the long-term heir to the number nine shirt, but whether he is ready to take on Zlatan’s role for an entire season remains unclear. The 19-year-old flourished in the latter stages of this campaign, but the pressure of playing more than 60 games a season as the side’s main goalscoring outlet is a tall order for any player, let alone a teenager. Mourinho admitted to being impressed with Rashford’s strength of character, but with Wayne Rooney likely to move on and lingering doubts over Anthony Martial’s future, it would be an almighty risk for the manager to place such a young player front and centre of his attack.
With Antoine Griezmann apparently no longer an option, Mourinho will be forced to look elsewhere; Torino’s Andrea Bellotti has been touted as an option and Harry Kane would provide a ready-made Zlatan replacement – if Woodward dares to enter negotiations with Tottenham Hotspur’s Daniel Levy. If United wants to add star quality at the head of the attack it may well be forced to break the club’s own world-transfer record, such is the state of today’s market.
Pragmatism or dynamism?
The exciting period at the end of 2016, where Mourinho’s United showed promise as an attacking unit, inspired a new chant from United’s vocal away support. “José plays the way that United should,” was the cry, but anyone who missed that brief interlude of flowing football would be left scratching their heads at the sentiment. The Reds’ season ended with a series of negative performances, with even the decisive victory over Ajax played out in less than thrilling fashion.
Mourinho is an anomaly in that he seems to revel in his own stereotype and not attempt to break away from it. In the manager’s post Europa League final interview he purred about football management’s “poets” and their apparent lack of success, suggesting his approach to the game is not about to change any time soon. United fans have expressed exasperation at Mourinho’s style of late, especially in big games. The Reds failed to defeat any of the club’s top-six rivals away from Old Trafford last season, scoring just once in the process. Mourinho’s dogged approach has paid huge dividends for him in the past, but whether United fans are so worn down by the post-Ferguson era that they will accept results at the expense of entertainment is doubtful.
With players such as Martial, Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Paul Pogba, there is little excuse for Mourinho if he fails to provide entertainment. The key to unleashing these players may lie in finding a settled backline, as the team went through an unhealthy number of centre-back pairings throughout the campaign. Eric Bailly seems a shoe-in for years to come, perhaps if Mourinho can create a sold unit around the Ivorian he may be less inclined to inhibit United’s attacking instincts.
An overdue title challenge
All talk of style and recruitment aside, the overarching aim for the 2017/18 must be to mount an assault on reclaiming the Premier League title. United has not seriously threatened the summit of the table since 2013, a statistic that would have been simply unthinkable at the time. Early indicators suggest that the manager has an extensive recruitment plan drawn up, and when summer draws to a close and the season kicks off, the Reds simply must be in a position to improve on this season’s league campaign.
Despite going on one of the longest unbeaten runs in recent times, United failed to get out of sixth place for much of the season and that is ultimately where the team finished. Points were dropped at home with alarming regularity; wasteful finishing resulted in an infuriating number of draws. Performances in big games was not up to scratch. Key players suffered perplexing losses of form as too many flitted in and out of the team according to form, injury or Mourinho’s whim. All of that must change if United is to seriously compete with Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, who will each strengthen already impressive squads in the next few months.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It’s set to be another vitally important summer at Old Trafford as the quest to return to the summit of the English game enters another phase.[/blockquote]
Failure to challenge for the title would leave Mourinho in a precarious position in a year’s time. Whether another decent season in the cups would be enough to gloss over poor league performances is unlikely, although a good run in the Champions League would perhaps curry significant favour with the support given the club’s absence from Europe’s élite in recent years.
Contending with the fixture congestion brought by the Champions League could, if Mourinho’s recent rhetoric is anything to go by, cause problems. The manager bemoaned the Thursday-Sunday double-header faced by his team this year and although the Champions League scheduling is slightly kinder, the level of exertion against top-class opposition will be higher. This is where adding depth of quality to the squad becomes vital as Mourinho will not get away the white-flag approach that cheapened some of United’s end-of-season fixtures.
It’s set to be another vitally important summer at Old Trafford as the quest to return to the summit of the English game enters another phase. One of Louis van Gaal’s biggest downfalls was his failure to build on the hope brought about by the 2014/15 season. With a League Cup and Europa League title under his belt, Mourinho has an even greater platform on which to build – he now must make it count.