… and breathe! It ended with Manchester United missing out on fourth place in the Premier League for the second time in three seasons, an FA Cup win, Louis van Gaal’s inevitable dismissal, and José Mourinho’s much-discussed arrival. There was drama at the last to follow an otherwise immensely forgettable season. Van Gaal’s second campaign in charge should have brought real progress. It didn’t, and anything less was always going to be viewed as failure after another summer of significant spending. After all, when Rant wrote that “few at Old Trafford should celebrate becoming England’s fourth best side” this time last year, it reflected an obvious reality – failure is just not United.
That Van Gaal is yet to recognise any fault for United’s slip from the top table of European football is telling. Despite the Dutchman’s idiosyncratic charm, Van Gaal proved to be an awful choice as United manager. Dismissal was justified and welcome. It says much for Van Gaal’s disastrous reign that United meekly ran to Mourinho having already rejected the Portuguese coach once. Supporters have now roundly embraced a manager they once routinely told to “f*ck off.” In the circumstances Mourinho is the least bad idea the club could come up with.
While Van Gaal was a disaster, the season at least finished with a modicum of success. Victory at Wembley secured a record-equalling 12th FA Cup, after a 12-year absence. United supporters lapped up the extra-time win over Crystal Palace, although the moment was just a little bittersweet. Glory comes with an inevitable sense that the club has slipped far from its once lofty position in the élite. Chasing cup wins while offering a meek challenge for the game’s biggest prizes was United’s role before Sir Alex Ferguson’s arrival. Not now.
Van Gaal’s job was to stabilise a listing ship and then find a path inextricably forward. He came with the reputation and the bravado to do so. The Dutchman failed and worse still, not only was United’s season desperately underwhelming, but the entertainment on offer was all but absent as Van Gaal retrenched into the most submissive form of pragmatism. In more than 130-years it has never been the United way; at no point did Van Gaal get it.
In the league, while United briefly topped the table in November, the Reds failed to make a serious challenge at all, finishing within a sniff of fourth-place only because of Manchester City’s bizarre decision to effectively sack Manuel Pellegrini part-way through the season. United’s finishing position is only a little short of shameful given the investment in new talent over the past two years.
The Champions League offered no respite, with the Reds dumped out at the group stage during a miserable December period that included four defeats in succession. United’s Europa League campaign also ended in humiliating fashion after comprehensive defeat by rivals Liverpool – as if featuring in the competition at all isn’t bad enough. Meanwhile, the Capital One Cup brought defeat to a lower-league side for the second season in a row.
The campaign’s dénouement brought glory at Wembley though – and Van Gaal’s P45. On both fronts, it was the least the fans deserved. 5/10
Louis van Gaal
There was once an aura about Van Gaal that afforded the Dutchman greater leeway than many coaches could expect. No longer. End stage Van Gaal was roundly mocked by supporters after two failed seasons. Once a giant of the game, the Dutchman regressed to become an incoherent pensioner ready to be retired off to his Portuguese “paradise.”
In the end Van Gaal was infuriatingly inconsistent and yet stubbornly set in his ways. Not a good combination for an élite coach. His failures are myriad – and frequently discussed here and elsewhere. It is safe to say that Van Gaal’s use of tactics and in-game management was poor, his ability to motivate non-existant, his record in the transfer market near-abysmal, and the relationship with fans and media broken.
Even in the one area where Van Gaal might gain credit – the use of young players – a question mark hangs over his legacy. Although Van Gaal offered playing time to 14 former academy players during his two-year spell as United manager, when it came to the biggest game of the campaign, only two made the FA Cup final side. The sense that Van Gaal reached out to youth only because injuries forced his hand is strong; few in time will offer the Dutchman much credit for those of the 14 that eventually make it at Old Trafford.
Goodbye Louis, and good riddance. There are few tears. 3/10
David de Gea
Rant’s Player of the Year in 2013/14 and 2014/15 continued his imperious form for a third campaign. Other players, such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial, offered more electric moments than the Spaniard this season, but De Gea remains United’s only genuinely world-class performer. The level of consistency is astonishing, with so few mistakes that it is safe to assume that a lesser ‘keeper would have left United many more points short of the title than the 17-point gap to Leicester City. It proved good fortune that the club kept the player despite accepting Real Madrid’s bid last summer, and astonishing that Van Gaal dropped De Gea during negotiations. Ever the professional, De Gea had every right to be insulted by Van Gaal’s mistrust. It probably contributed to United missing out on a place in the Champions League. 9/10 – Rant’s Player of the Year.
Acquired for a relatively modest £12 million from Torino, Darmian initially offered genuine hope that the club had found a long-term solution in a problem position. After all, not only is Darmian a full Italian international, but a series of strong performances in the late summer suggested a rare bargain find. The first impression didn’t last long and by the winter Darmian was in and out of the side more often than Van Gaal switches tactics. The Italian put up decent defensive numbers throughout the campaign, although it was his attacking contribution that truly stands out as below par. Whatever Darmian’s shortcomings in the final third, it is the player’s lack of consistency that frustrates most. The defender may be of the Mourinho-type, but it is not clear he is of United quality. 5/10
Now permanently assigned to a role at right-back, the Ecuadorian still manages to frustrate with his one-footed run-into-a-blind-alley-and-then-turn-back schtick. The pace and athleticism remain, as does Valencia’s capacity to rarely give the ball away. Each was appreciated by Van Gaal this season. Yet, there is no guarantee that Mourinho will view the player with the same affection. Valencia remains a mistake waiting to happen defensively, with numbers in the attacking third only a touch better than Darmian. He is a player that cannot take United to a higher level, and may well see the door under a new manager this summer. 5/10
It should have been Shaw’s breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford. After a mixed season in 2014/15, Shaw began the season in exhilarating fashion – a proper replacement for Patrice Evra at last, with sound attacking and defensive fundamentals. The youngster’s body let him down last season; this year it was PSV Eindhoven’s Hector Moreno, who snapped Shaw’s tibia and fibula with a crude challenge back in September. There should be much more to come from a newly fit Shaw next season so long as there is no lasting impact from the player’s injury. World class talent could well lie in wait. n/a
There was just a touch of regret in looking back on the Argentinian’s début season at United. He surprised many with a sound range of passing, plenty of determination and some defensive leadership. Injuries disrupted that campaign and this, but that is where the comparison ends. This season, Rojo’s performances veered from underwhelming to overtly damaging; another £16 million spunked on a Jorge Mendes client. When will United learn? Not soon, it seems. Indeed, that relationship is possibly the only reason the defender could remain at United beyond the summer. Mourinho’s history of filling his Real Madrid squad with Mendes make-weights is telling. 4/10
Blind still divides opinion, although for a different reason in the player’s second season at Old Trafford. Once a poor facsimile of Michael Carrick, Blind is now a messy copy of Javier Mascherano – a midfielder turned ball-playing central defender. There are plenty in United’s massed support that rate Blind highly: the good looks, calm demeanour and outstanding range of passing helps. He has also developed into a more nuanced player over the past year, with a sound defensive instincts that enable recovery in difficult situations. Yet, he has also been found out in central defence too often; not normally for the pace or strength that he lacks, but for the positioning that has cost United too many crucial goals. Will not feature often under Mourinho. 7/10
Another fine campaign from the Englishman, who has now established himself as first choice for club and country. Smalling was imperious before a new year injury appeared to impact his form, if only a touch. Once again, the former Fulham defender emerged from a difficult season with reputation enhanced. If not United’s best outfield player during the campaign then Smalling was close to it, and he secured the club’s Players’ Player of the Year award last month. Now 26, Smalling should enjoy working under Mourinho – a manager that knows a thing or few about the defensive arts. The next few years will decide whether Smalling is great player, or just very good. 8/10
There was once a time that Jones, not Smalling, was rated the better of two young Englishmen. His is a natural talent, one that is comfortable on the ball and includes a defender’s instinct, with a fighter’s temperament. It was bizarre, but not without at least a modicum of merit that Ferguson once called out Jones as the heir apparent to Duncan Edwards. Three years on and Jones has failed that test. The talent has not moved forward and the body has consistently failed him. Indeed, Jones played just 11 games this season – it was his least productive in five years at the club. There is little reason for Mourinho to retain the player beyond the summer. 3/10
There was much to enjoy in the young Dutchman’s brief spell in the first team picture. Acquired from Ajax in 2014, Fosu-Mensah is comfortable in many positions, although central defence could be the one in which he truly shines. Athletic, ambitious, but with much to learn – United can boast a diamond in the rough. The player endured a difficult 45 minutes against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final and was promptly dropped by Van Gaal. Faith in youth? Not nearly as much as the manager makes out. Still, it shouldn’t be a damaging experience for a player who may well contribute much in the coming years. Whether its next season, under Mourinho, is open to question. 6/10
Borthwick-Jackson has earned a shot at competing with Shaw for a place at left-back next season. His composed performances during 14 games for the first team mark the locally born youngster out as a potential first team regular. It remains shocking that the 19-year-old was dropped from the FA Cup final squad in favour of Rojo, a player whose performances have merited nothing but the axe this season. There will be brighter days for Borthwick-Jackson ahead, although he may be right to worry about Mourinho’s reputation as manager that prefers the finished article and not an unpolished gem. Borthwick-Jackson may well spend some part of next season away from Old Trafford on loan. 6/10
Even in a hyper-inflated market for Premier League footballers it is easy to conclude that £27 million spent on Schneiderlin was just a touch lofty. The former Southampton player is an industrious worker and a sound defensive shield, but lacks the consistency and quality to have truly shone over the past year. That Schneiderlin was fourth choice for the defensive midfield role in the French national team this summer says much. United certainly acquired a decent player, in a role that the squad sorely lacked, but in purchasing just below the top of the market, for a highly inflated fee, the club showed more than a little desperation – and a hint of Liverpoolisation. United wears neither well. Schneiderlin should find a role in Mourinho’s squad though. The real question is whether the Frenchman can move to another level? 6/10
Young remains a contradiction. By any data point of relevance the Englishman is truly mediocre. He managed just one goal and two assists in the past campaign, with his chances created and shots taken metrics also equally embarrassing, even with some of the season spent at full-back. Yet, there is also a level of consistency and industry that can be admired. The quality of end product is low, but few doubt Young’s commitment to the cause. Still, Young spent much of the campaign injured and he earns more than £100,000 per week. This is hardly a good mix. Perhaps the player is no longer the poster child for United’s midfield failings, but he is unlikely to be the man who drags the club out of the mire either. 6/10
Inexplicably the Belgian has now spent three seasons at United. That they are three of the worst United campaigns of the past 30 years is not merely a coincidence. Fellaini was a regular member of Van Gaal’s squad when fit and available, and even scored some crucial goals too, including a goal in United’s FA Cup semi-final against former team Everton. Yet, after three years it is now clear that Fellaini has only one purpose – to get his head or chest on the ball deep into the opposition half. It is a crude plan B, and a desperate plan A. Van Gaal’s use of the player in central midfield or deeper roles has been a disaster and Fellaini will forever be short of the quality that supporters expect at Old Trafford. The Belgian so lacks for dynamism that Mourinho will surely see past the blind spots that held Moyes and Van Gaal in awe. 5/10
Carrick has certainly entered the twilight of his career. Indeed, at times over the past year Carrick seemed ripe for retirement, despite being a player whose all round quality has contributed highly to United’s successes over the past eight years. The Geordie struggled for much of the opening six months of the year, with those ageing legs not quite doing what the quick-fire brain instructed. Carrick redeemed himself to a point over the final three months of the campaign, and showed quality at crucial times towards the back-end of the season. One more year is a sensible move by the club though, to retain a link with the Ferguson era as José finally takes over. 5/10
In 40 league and cup games for United over the past season Herrera contributed just four goals and two assists. Not enough for a player of many attacking talents. In fact many of Herrera’s attacking metrics are down year-over-year. After a stop-start 2014/15 campaign, this was the season that Herrera should have made the big breakthrough. He didn’t. That Van Gaal moved the Spaniard in-and-out of the team with frustrating regularity didn’t help Herrera find his rhythm, but then neither was the player’s level of decision-making or performance consistent either. It is a pity, but a player that cost almost £30 million should have offered more. It would not surprise if Mourinho moved the player on this summer. 5/10
There is a large section of United’s support that finds Mata perplexing. Perhaps a growing section of the coaching staff too if Mourinho’s history with the player is anything to go by. Too slow on the ball is the claim; too reluctant to track back and work for the team, they say. Both can be true. Then again Mata is a skilfully crafted masterpiece in a paint-by-numbers world. He takes time, when the terraces demand instant gratification. It is even more perplexing that first Moyes and then Van Gaal refused to offer the Spaniard substantial minutes in the number 10 role that he was surely born to play. For all that, Mata still puts up the numbers: 10 goals and eight assists, 67 chances created, more than 2100 passes made in the past season – from a role largely on the right hand side of the pitch. He is far better than the social media rabble would have you believe, but perhaps not as good as many think he should be. 7/10
Eight-time Bundesliga champion, seven-time German cup winner, one Champions League, and one World Cup. Schweinsteiger is a stick of rock with class etched to the core. It showed on the pitch for a time, with the German captain’s demonstrable leadership shining through, and his easy passing seamlessly blending into Van Gaal’s team. The legs have gone though; Schweinsteiger’s mobility shot, and questionable fitness is now at the point of rendering the 31-year-old permanently redundant. In a slower paced league Schweinsteiger might not have struggled to keep up with play, or retain his fitness. As it is, 12 months is probably enough to assess that the midfielder’s value is much diminished from his very lofty heights. May not survive the summer. 4/10
Popular in the dressing room and in the stands. The locally-born winger forced his way into Van Gaal’s team with an industrious game and an ability to take on the Dutchman’s instruction. It is this skill set that stands out most, and not the player’s attacking game that too often lets him down. Lingard’s numbers are poor, and his contribution in the final third often frustrating. Yet, he also scored some crucial goals this season, including that stunning strike to win United the FA Cup. If nothing else that moment will be remember for many years to come. The suspicion is that Mourinho will seek a little more quality on the right-wing. Not good news for an academy player who waited a long time for his chance. 6/10
There were moments this season when Memphis demonstrated the kind of outrageous skill and eye for goal that encouraged United to pay just shy of £30 million for the Dutchman last summer. Not many though. For the most part the youngster proved to be a constant source of frustration – rarely consistent, only occasionally effective, often wasteful. After all, it wasn’t good fortune that the winger scored 27 goals for PSV Eindhoven the season before. There is plenty in the locker. There should be more to come. Whether the club remains patient is another question. 4/10
Wow. The youngster from Wythenshawe certainly made an impact after making his début in February. Eight goals later and Rashford is now United’s first choice centre-forward and on the plane with England to the European Championships in France this summer. True, those goals came from an unusually small number of shots; a freak stat that has numbers-nerds writing off the forward, and United supporters laughing at the geek fraternity. Rashford is the real deal alright, although he will need to go to another level once his game has been ‘found out’ by the great and good of Premier League defences. Yet, with pace to burn and a fearless attitude, Rashford could hardly have made a more telling impact in just 18 games in the first team picture. 8/10
Whatever way the sums are calculated, the United and England captain, the club’s top-earner, and the face of the Reds’ global marketing, has suffered another poor season. The third season-over-season decline in succession. Rooney’s 15 goals and six assists tell one story: a modest return for a player who featured predominantly as a centre forward, sometimes as an attacking midfielder, and on five occasions in the heart of midfield. The more nuanced tale says that Rooney failed to score a single goal against any of the Premier League’s top six, while netting against luminaries such as Brugge, Sheffield United, Ipswich Town and Sunderland. The legs have gone; Rooney now admits as much. His future may lie in midfield, but the suspicion is that it’s a crutch for a player who can no longer perform at an élite level. 6/10
“What a waste of money,” cried the Mirror back page. It’s a headline that still brings much amusement nine months later. Martial, a hugely expensive deadline-day purchase from Monaco, has gone on to justify every penny of the fee paid. In truth he did that inside 20 minutes of his debut, after a mazy run beat three Liverpool defenders and then a shot was placed past the despairing Simon Mignolet. One of the great début goals, from a teenager, against Liverpool, at Old Trafford! At times Martial has carried United’s attack this season, whether from a central birth or more latterly on the left-wing. The wide role can limit the Frenchman, whose ability to run at defenders is at its most dangerous in the final third, not when tracking back. There is, defenders beware, even more to come from the youngster. 8/10
* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions