Jose Mourinho gambled everything on the Europa League last season and it paid off. Manchester United’s football excited precisely nobody but that won’t have bothered the manager. The world’s most expensive squad may not have competed for the title but they earned their way back to the Champions League regardless.
His first major success last term then can be said to have been dampening down expectations to such an extent that supporters felt finishing the season in sixth place and with the Europa League title represented success.
Mourinho has reset United’s style of play and made them robust; a team of bruisers. The physically-imposing trio of Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have been added to a squad which already contained giants such as Eric Bailly and Marouane Fellaini. United’s focus this year will be very much on winning the physical battles and pretty football patterns will have to wait.
Equipped with the costliest striker in Premier League history, United will now be expected to improve on last season’s finish. Lukaku hit 25 goals last season and provides Mourinho with a younger, more mobile replacement for the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Lukaku looks a good fit for a Mourinho team. Notoriously distrustful of inexperienced players, Mourinho will be encouraged by the improvements made by the Belgian since giving him the boot at Chelsea.
While there are suggestions that the player himself would have preferred a move back to Stamford Bridge – where Alvaro Morata ended up – he looks an altogether better for fit for United than the Spaniard. Lukaku brings a guarantee of goals and should be able to pick up Zlatan’s mantle in netting with regularity against the league’s lesser lights. Question marks remain over his competence in the bigger matches against title rivals but if he’s occupying defenders that should at least permit his colleagues in the strike force a little more space to work.
The attacking line has been trimmed right back with captain Wayne Rooney departing and Zlatan expected to sign back for the club only when he recovers. In the meantime there will be opportunities for the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.
There is no doubting Mourinho’s fondness for Rashford. He admires not only the 19-year-old’s ability on the field of play but also his tenacity and his ability to cope with setbacks. Last season brought the Sophomore curse for the England international who, after a stunning breakout campaign, suffered a rapid decline in his scoring rate. Long scoreless spells followed and he was forced to settle for an intermittent role. There is little or no chance of him ousting Lukaku from the centre-forward berth. Mourinho has not spent £75m on a substitute.
That means Rashford will be competing on the flanks where Mourinho has plenty of other options. Potential signing Ivan Perisic should command the slot on the left with Martial, Lingard, Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all jostling for a place in attack too. Martial has been suggested as a possible signing for Inter as part of any Perisic deal and there is no question that he needs to raise his game.
He is not a classic Mourinho-type player and has plenty of work to do to convince the manager. He can be brilliant in flashes and has performed well in pre-season, however, and can lead lightning quick raids down the wings. Mourinho is searching for consistency in his talent and there cannot be many more chances left.
The transfer window spiralled out of control this summer and the £89m United paid to Juventus for Pogba last year all of a sudden looks decent value. He was far and away the best midfielder in the league last term even if the scrutiny he was put under sometimes obscured that fact. Many were unsure what a player that expensive should be doing and there were unreasonable expectations put upon him.
But he delivered control in matches and lifted United’s midfield a class above. He is now ready to take the lead in the centre for United and will be liberated in that regard by the signing of screener Matic. A traditional defensive midfield role does not suit Pogba and he will be free to influence things from a position closer to a “No. 10” that he excelled in at Juve.
Mourinho has had trouble at centre-back since taking over, with plenty of rotations between Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. The English duo would appear to be going into this season out of favour and Lindelof has been signed not as cover but as a starter. He got off to a shaky start in pre-season friendlies against LA Galaxy and, most notably, against Real Madrid but the time to judge the Swede is not now. He clearly has pedigree as a league winner with a dominant Benfica team but there is no doubt that playing for United will be a step up.
The manager has acknowledged that the 23-year-old is much better with the ball than without and this is a Manchester United team that has no problem in ceding the ball to the opposition. Lindelof will have to make sure that he makes his mistakes early in his United career and gets up to speed as soon as possible, just like the man he was compared to before signing - Nemanja Vidic. He looked woefully inadequate in the early part of his United career but eased into his surroundings and became one of United’s all-time great signings.
A five-year deal has also been agreed with Paris Saint-Germain right-back Serge Aurier, and the Ivorian would be another formidable addition to the United squad, if a deal gets over the line.
While United might well be challenging for the top spots, you should expect nothing from Mourinho in the clashes between teams at the top of the table; he would take two scoreless draws against each of Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal right now if you offered that to him. He is risk-adverse, a neutralising force who will demand clean sheets first and foremost and as many narrow victories as possible.
This conservatism did not prove successful in the league last season with so many draws banked against the lesser lights but, having crept back into the Champions League, Mourinho could not care less. It’s Manchester United but not as we know it.