It’s been over a year since Jose Mourinho overtook Louis Van Gaal at the helm of one of the biggest football clubs in the world. Expectations were high and United fans across the globe were excited to see what the Special One could bring to Old Trafford.
Silly season was back once again and, as always, seemingly everyone was linked with a move to the red half of Manchester.
Our new manager’s first bit of business saw Eric Bailly – a 22-year-old Ivorian central defender – arrive at United from Villarreal for a fee believed to be around £30M. Exciting and aggressive were words used to describe his previous performances, however many would have to wait and see what he could do in the more physical English Premier League considering he was somewhat unknown to those who aren’t avid watchers of European or international African football.
The first day of July then saw a Swedish giant re-united with his former boss. Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced in typical style that he’d be joining the Reds after his contract wasn’t extended at Paris Saint-Germain. At 34 years of age, it wasn’t surprising to see some doubt his current capabilities and whether he’d cope with the pace of the English game – we didn’t want a repeat of Radamel Falcao who signed on a season-long loan back in 2014, bagging just four goals.
Five days later it was officially announced that Manchester United had secured Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund – Jose’s third signing of the summer transfer window. An Armenian midfielder who, throughout the 2015/16 season, was involved in 33 goals for the German side.
BACK TO BUSINESS
After a particularly disappointing pre-season that saw a largely anticipated fixture with Manchester City abandoned due to severe weather conditions in China, United walked out onto the Wembley pitch where Jesse Lingard fired the winner in the FA Cup Final just three months prior to the FA Community Shield.
It was our first outing in the Community Shield since David Moyes’ victory over Wigan Athletic in 2013, however, on this occasion, we weren’t arriving as the Champions of England. In fact, that honour was on the shoulders of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City who were now without key man, N’Golo Kante.
Jesse Lingard provided yet another moment of brilliance in front of the Wembley crowd as his solo effort broke the deadlock in sight of the travelling Foxes. Jamie Vardy equalised midway through the second-half as the game itself progressed towards a penalty shootout.
Step forward our new No.9, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A headed goal after climbing above a previously solid Wes Morgan helped United take the lead late on under the iconic arch.
Zlatan’s efforts proved to be the difference between the League and Cup winners of 2015/16, handing Jose Mourinho his first piece of silverware at his new club.
For years, Paul Pogba’s departure from Manchester United was considered as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest mistakes during his illustrious reign that came to an end in May 2013.
The obviously talented Frenchman impressed within the youth ranks after he was signed from Le Havre as a teenager eight years ago. His involvement amongst a promising crop of youngsters during their 2011 FA Youth Cup win suggested that he was on his way to becoming something rather special.
Pogba, however, made his way to Turin after failing to reach regular first team football at Old Trafford – making just seven appearances under Ferguson before leaving in July 2012. The return of the previously-retired Paul Scholes was seen to be the last straw that eventually forced the move away to Juventus.
He developed into a young monster; improving his game in numerous aspects that caused for praise from many across the continent. Links were made that implied Paul Pogba was once on his way to Manchester City although, as they usually do, these rumours were later crushed.
Fast-forward to August 2016 and excitement had been building all summer following reliable sources counting on his return to Manchester United. The rumours were true and on the 9th August – just days before the start of the new Premier League season – ‘Pogback’ was unveiled.
A record-breaking £89M transfer fee saw Juventus give up one of their prized possessions that was once courtesy of our greatest manager.
The press and rival fans immediately reverted to the ‘overpriced and overrated’ stance, despite previously raving about how good he turned out to be thanks to the Italian side.
It wasn’t until the 19th August, however, that he could show the Old Trafford crowd exactly what he could do on the pitch for the club he refers to as ‘his home’.
Premier League action had finally returned and United couldn’t have got off to a better start. Three wins from the Reds’ first three games saw Mourinho challenging for the top spot before an early international break in September.
Victories over Bournemouth and Southampton saw why exactly the boss wanted Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bagging three goals in just his first two Premier League appearances. Marcus Rashford also carried on from where he left off last season by snatching the three points with a stoppage time winner away to Mike Phelan’s Hull City.
What followed the international break was a poor run of form. A disappointing loss to Pep Guardiola’s City failed to meet the expectation of United fans as the hype of the first Manchester Derby between the two managerial powerhouses ended in frustration for the Reds.
Two losses in just over a week forced United down the table after a promising start in the league. A midweek away loss to Feyenoord, too, in our opening Europa League fixture allowed football fans to start questioning Jose Mourinho’s capabilities at this level following his disastrous 2015/16 campaign with Chelsea.
After getting back on track with an EFL Cup win at Northampton Town and smashing Leicester City 4-1 at Old Trafford, draws with Stoke City at home and away to Liverpool left United lingering in 7th place after match-week eight.
Next up was a trip to Stamford Bridge where our new boss was returning to a place he’d secured three league titles for since 2005. The Portuguese’s comeback turned out to be the opposite to what many hoped it would be – a humiliating 4-0 defeat.
What followed was a 21-game unbeaten streak that helped us qualify for the Europa League’s Round of 32 and a place in the EFL Cup Final at Wembley. Despite some impressively attacking displays against weaker opposition, draws were seeming to make themselves at home this season at the Theatre of Dreams.
Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool and Hull City all achieved single points on their travels to Manchester United between the 29th October 2016 and the 1st February 2017. Without these draws, it’s interesting and frustrating to see how far further up the table United could’ve found themselves over the busier period of the campaign.
After overcoming Hull City in the two-legged semi-final, Jose Mourinho found himself on the verge of a second piece of silverware during his first season at his new club. Claude Puel’s Southampton were the only obstacle after surprising victories over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side.
Saints had made just one competitive final appearance in their history before the 2016/17 EFL Cup Final – a shock 1976 FA Cup Final win over… Manchester United.
United went into the final with confidence after five straight wins across numerous competitions.
However, a nervy start was evident as Manolo Gabbiadini converted for Southampton after just eleven minutes, only for it to be called offside. Less than ten minutes later it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who broke the deadlock with a drilled free-kick from around 25-yards out. United’s lead was doubled by Jesse Lingard on 38 minutes – his third Wembley goal in under a year.
The final was far from over though as the underdogs clawed their way back through two goals from their newly found star striker, Monolo Gabbiadini – should he have had his hat-trick?
It was a poor performance from United’s perspective but it wouldn’t be the same if we always did it the easy way. Up steps the Swedish Hero yet again to fire the Reds to the EFL Cup in the 88th minute – our first since winning it back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.
With a top four finish in the Premier League slipping from United’s reach, it was time to prioritise the Europa League. Jose Mourinho stated in March that he’d much rather win a trophy whilst qualifying for next season’s Champions League as opposed to finishing third or fourth with no European glory, so it was clear where the boss’ intentions were heading.
Russian side FC Rostov were our opponents in the Round of 16 as we travelled to Eastern Europe for the first-leg before returning home the following Thursday. Unfamiliar conditions consequently caused for a poor game of football, despite United taking the lead away from home through Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
On the brink of the quarter-finals, many fans believed we’d have an easy route into the next round after securing an important away goal a week before. It wasn’t to be as Rostov kept the Reds out until the 70th minute; Juan Mata’s goal setting a cushion in place. That cushion eventually turned out to be unnecessary as United progressed 2-1 on aggregate.
The draw was made and it was a pairing with Anderlecht that set us apart from the Europa League semi-finals.
An array of missed chances in Belgium could’ve cost us the tie as Mourinho’s men were punished late on by Leander Dendoncker’s headed equaliser.
Old Trafford played stage to the second-leg and, yet again, it was Henrikh Mkhitaryan who gave United the lead on the night – his fifth goal of the competition. Anderlecht fought back though as the tie ventured into extra-time.
Just over a year since he burst onto the footballing scene on the same European stage, it was time for Marcus Rashford to switch a run of form from bad to good. The young English striker’s composed finish fired United ahead for the third time over the two legs.
Mourinho had taken United to our first European semi-final since 2011, however it wasn’t all positive on the night as major injuries were sustained by two key players. Marcos Rojo – whose excellent defensive form had been one of the surprises of the season – and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both had their seasons cut short following severe knee ligament damage.
Rashford’s surge in form softened the blow of Zlatan’s long-term injury, picking up his performances exactly when we needed him to. His stunning free-kick away to Celta Vigo a crucial moment in United’s season as the Reds ran out 1-0 winners in the first-leg of the European semi-final in Spain.
A tense second-leg was made slightly more relaxing as Marouane Fellaini headed in the opener at Old Trafford – the Reds now led 2-0 on aggregate. Celta equalised towards the end to make for an excruciating climax, worsened after tempers flared and red cards were given out to Eric Bailly and Facundo Roncaglia.
Despite an incredible goal-scoring opportunity for John Guidetti (once of Manchester City) with the final kick of the game, it was United who held on and found themselves in their first European final since we faced Barcelona at Wembley six years ago.
Ajax Amsterdam were now the only team that could stop us from playing Champions League football next season, with the final to be played in Stockholm on the 24th May.
A sensational atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams witnessed one of the performances of the season as Mourinho finally got one over Antonio Conte and his former club midway through April.
Goals from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were enough to stun the champions-elect, however the Reds weren’t capable of maintaining momentum in the Premier League as failure to beat Manchester City in the derby and Swansea City at the end of the month dented any remaining hopes of a top four finish.
Rotation was now a talking point heading into the final fixtures of the domestic campaign, with Axel Tuanzebe a standout example for his excellent league debut away to Arsenal.
Losses to the North-London clubs held minimal significance but were still somewhat disappointing due to the high expectations set at the start of the season – from midseason it seemed we were always destined to finish in sixth place. That was a certainty even before a ball was kicked on the final day of the season.
Jose Mourinho had made it clear that he’d prefer to not play the remaining Premier League fixtures, nevertheless he decided to give the opportunity to the youngsters against an already-safe Crystal Palace.
Running out comfortable 2-0 winners, the debutants definitely made a fantastic first impression amongst the match-going crowd as well as millions around the world. Joel Pereira, Demetri Mitchell, Tim Fosu-Mensah, Scott McTominay, Axel Tuanzebe and Josh Harrop were some of the youngsters making a name for themselves on the Premier League stage.
A late introduction also saw the exciting 16-year-old Angel Gomes replace Manchester United’s leading goalscorer, Wayne Rooney.
The future for the club looks bright.
Attention turned to European football as, arguably, the biggest fixture in United’s recent history was upon us – Ajax vs Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final.
A talented, exciting, young Dutch side had won over many admirers over the course of their European campaign, however some questioned whether their inexperience would be exposed on the 24th May by the three-times European Cup/Champions League winners.
With the tragic events at the MEN Arena in Manchester taking place just two days before the final, the result was now even more important from a non-sporting point of view.
A minute silence was beautifully observed by both sets of travelling fans prior to kick-off in the Swedish capital.
Then there was a final to be played and it was Paul Pogba who opened the scoring 18 minutes in with a deflected effort that looped over the helpless Andre Onana.
Pressure from the attack-minded Ajax was imminent and it seemed that they might equalise towards the end of the first-half following a number of chances in front of goal.
The second period began but it wasn’t Ajax who would score the second of the final. Instead, the ball fell to Henrikh Mkhitaryan who poked it home from close range – two summer signings proving to be the difference so far in Stockholm.
Minutes went by and our young opponents failed to break down Mourinho’s tactics. Chances were missed by both teams but, in the end, it was Manchester United who would go on to be crowned champions of the 2016/17 Europa League.
Prioritisation had paid off and the Reds had finally secured automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League – crucial for attracting top talent throughout this summer’s transfer window.
United celebrated completing the trophy set and the final piece of the jigsaw was dedicated to those affected by the Manchester attacks. Three trophies were under Red hands as Jose Mourinho’s first season went down an eventual success at Old Trafford.
Despite finishing not even a week ago, I’m already excited to see what Manchester United can achieve next season.
Thank you for taking the time to read, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article!