How Far from the Top are Manchester United?

A glittering era came to a rather abrupt end following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013, however Manchester United have recently regained the taste for trophies once again.

Success achieved over the last few years has been scoffed at by rival fans, though a return to the top of today’s game will remain the club’s main ambition for the forthcoming season.

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May 2013 – Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating the club’s twentieth league title with the younger members of his family.

Bowing out with a thirteenth Premier League title, England’s most successful manager handed the reigns over to his chosen successor David Moyes. An ageing squad that included Rio Ferdinand (34), Nemanja Vidic (31), Patrice Evra (32) and Ryan Giggs (39) – all of whom left the club at the end of the 2013/14 season – saw United slump to a 7th placed finish in the Premier League, the club’s worst campaign since the new format began in 1992. Despite the less-prestigious Community Shield victory at the start of his tenure, David Moyes will go down in Manchester United history for, mainly, all the wrong reasons.

2014/15 ended trophy-less for the Reds in Louis van Gaal’s introductory year in English football. With Champions League qualification obtained and an impressive record against the top sides domestically, many fans had high hopes for United the following season. It wasn’t to be as the Dutch boss and his players provided some of the most unattractive football Old Trafford had arguably seen since the early or pre-Ferguson era.

Regardless of how poor the league performances were, United had made it to their first FA Cup Final since 2007. Pardew’s Crystal Palace stood between the Manchester club and a piece of major silverware in a repeat of the 1990 Cup Final. An occasion that dragged into extra-time, Jesse Lingard’s thunderous strike was enough to send Louis van Gaal on his way with a winners’ medal around his neck – his sacking reported just hours after the final whistle.

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May 2016 – Juan Mata & Jesse Lingard pose with United’s first major honour of the post-Ferguson era after scoring the crucial goals at Wembley.

Jose Mourinho’s first year at the helm of one the biggest clubs in world football culminated with a Europa League final and an opportunity to secure Champions League action for 2017/18. The previous nine months had seen success under the Wembley arch in the Community Shield and the League Cup final, with United aiming for a third trophy to top off a somewhat disappointing campaign. Victory over Ajax Amsterdam in Stockholm completed a not-so-illustrious treble, however importantly set United up for exciting European nights once again at Old Trafford next season.

FUTURE COMPETITION

Most, if not all, United fans will tell you that they expect nothing but the best from Manchester United next season, although a significant improvement will be needed in comparison to 2016/17.

It’s seemingly forgotten that some good football was shown at Old Trafford during the earlier stages of last season, and I don’t mean from visiting sides – only Manchester City were good enough to win there across all competitions. It was nice to finally see some attacking intention after LVG’s drab tactics from previous campaigns, though poor displays within the finishing department and a lack of goals from those other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic led to numerous frustrating draws (10 in total in the Premier League alone).

New signing Romelu Lukaku has been considered as the solution to the striking problem at United, hence the £75M purchase from Koeman’s Everton. 25 goals last season (0.68 goals per game on average) would’ve earned the Belgian the Premier League Golden Boot award if not for Harry Kane’s seven goals in Spurs’ last two fixtures – impressive to say the least.

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April 2017 – Romelu Lukaku celebrates one of his two goals during Everton’s home clash with Leicester City.

Two preseason fixtures in the USA has allowed fans to catch a small glimpse of what Lukaku might offer in a United shirt. Tuesday morning (BST) saw the new No.9 bag his first goal under Jose Mourinho, despite having played for him at Chelsea before leaving permanently in 2014 after loan deals at West Bromwich Albion and Everton.

Manchester United are due to play another five fixtures before the UEFA Super Cup on August 8th, travelling across America and back to Europe to face Norwegian side Valerenga in Oslo and Sampdoria in Dublin.

Preseason arrangements will also benefit defensive newcomer Victor Lindelof after his £30M move from Benfica. The ‘Iceman’ is known for his composed nature on the ball – potentially the perfect partner to the aggressive Ivorian, Eric Bailly. After going down a hit during his first season in England, Bailly’s transfer looks to be a successful one and has caused many to entrust Mourinho with signings regarding the back line.

I suppose we’ll soon find out whether these two new signings prove themselves to be solid buys once Premier League football returns in just under a month.

“We need more… 50% of the job done”, said Mourinho in a recent press conference held in Los Angeles. An outright winger and a defensive midfielder are likely the two positions in need of re-strengthening this summer at Manchester United. Ivan Perisic and Nemanja Matic seem to have attracted the Portuguese boss’ attention according to recent reports, however both are now looking less likely for different reasons.

Inter’s stubborn approach to dealing with Ed Woodward may force Mourinho to look elsewhere for his addition to the wing, particularly after their interest and adamancy for an agreement involving an unnecessarily large fee and talented Frenchman, Anthony Martial. The supposed desire for Nemanja Matic, however, never felt entirely convincing from a fan’s perspective – even more so now since it’s looking increasingly probable that the Serbian is on his way to Juventus.

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Ivan Perisic is seemingly becoming more and more unsettled at Inter Milan following reported interest from Manchester United.

With five departures at this current time – including Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the squad will require more depth in order to compete on all fronts next season.

During the absence of European football following a 10th placed finish in 2016, a side made up of 24 players last season was enough to see Antonio Conte’s Chelsea stroll towards the Premier League title. The year before, underdogs Leicester City achieved a similar feat whilst, last season, proving that the inclusion of another tournament can seriously impede the side’s efforts domestically.

Manchester City were the last English team to reach the Champions League semi-finals back in 2015/16 – narrowly securing a top four finish in the league that season ahead of Van Gaal’s United. This of course suggests that, in recent years, Premier League sides are struggling to juggle both domestic and European ambitions. Manchester United were the last side to achieve a Premier League and Champions League double now nine years ago.

2011 saw United secure a monumental nineteenth league title whilst reaching the European Cup final for a third time in four years. This is probably the last instance of an English side performing in both and, unfortunately, I don’t see this changing for at least a few more years.

Spain’s dominance on the continental stage doesn’t look to be holding up any time soon, especially considering the youth and talent within the ranks at Real Madrid. Juventus have come close on two occasions to challenging the current Spanish norm but I feel their resistance next season will fade when considering the departures from Turin. Nevertheless, they may surprise again and so might the English sides seeing as five Premier League competitors will be involved next season for the first time in the tournament’s history.

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June 2017 – Real Madrid celebrate their third Champions League Final win in four years, defeating Juventus by four-goals-to-one in Cardiff.

More specifically then, are Manchester United capable of challenging on all fronts domestically next season? With effective recruitment and improving the ability to finish chances, there’s no reason to count them out just yet. Mourinho’s experience could prove vital when looking to win the big games – something United struggled to do last season thanks to limited ideas on an attacking front. As we all know, this forced the Reds to take a more negative approach against sides like Liverpool and Arsenal whilst Chelsea destroyed defensive plans early on following a quick-fire start at Stamford Bridge.

Additionally, avoiding a ravaged squad like the one we saw towards the end of last season will most definitely be key as well. With some potentially key players out until December or even later, it’s easy to see why some United fans consider the transfer business so far this summer to be substandard regarding the re-strengthening process of the squad – “we’ve just replaced those we’ve lost to injury during last season’s run-in and not improved at all“.

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Victor Lindelof will be looking to emulate Eric Bailly’s first season at Manchester United when the two pair up to form a crucial part of Mourinho’s back line. 

As mentioned before, adding depth to the current 28-man squad (disregarding any breakthrough players that may come from the academy) will be essential if the Reds want to challenge for each trophy they’re involved in next season. The treble-winning squad of 1998/99 consisted of 31 players, 29 of which making at least one appearance along the course of the 63-fixture campaign. Granted, not a huge difference in terms of numbers between then and now but I feel we’re significantly weaker in certain areas of the pitch, particularly the midfield.

Of course I’m not expecting the ‘real treble‘ to be United’s objective for 2017/18, though a strong start when the Premier League kicks-off on opening weekend (August 13th – Manchester United vs West Ham United) will only provide confidence and belief during the early stages of the new season.

What might also prove to be a pivotal role in the title race – if United are to be involved – will be when and where clashes with the other ‘big five’ take place. Last year saw Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur away all within the midst of, what turned out to be, an unimportant climax to the domestic season. Next season’s fixture list, however, is possibly a bit kinder to Mourinho’s men as away trips to Spurs (January) and City (April) are the only two that split up a run of home fixtures with Chelsea (February), Liverpool (March) and Arsenal (May) – the reversed fixtures currently pencilled in to be held before the turn of the year.

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Manchester United’s penultimate home fixture could be a big one as Arsenal travel to Old Trafford in May 2018.

I’m personally very excited for the new campaign to begin as I feel Manchester United aren’t as far away from the Premier League title as many rival fans taunt us for being. With room for improvement remaining apparent, I believe the pairing of summer additions and a somewhat favourable run-in could just guide United to Number 21 – or at least I hope.

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