The revived giants: Manchester United

Big signings signal return to glory years

The return to Old Trafford of Paul Pogba, a beaten finalist with France at last month's European Championship, has had the Manchester United faithful raising their hopes of being Premier League contenders this season.
The return to Old Trafford of Paul Pogba, a beaten finalist with France at last month's European Championship, has had the Manchester United faithful raising their hopes of being Premier League contenders this season.PHOTO: REUTERS

With Jose Mourinho at the helm, United fancy their chances to challenge for the league title The 2016-17 English Premier League countdown ends with the biggest storyline that will shape the new season

LONDON • Last season ought to have proved conclusively that Jose Mourinho is in fact not all that special after he was dismissed from Chelsea in December, but try telling that to Manchester United supporters at the moment.

The Special One being at the Special Club at long last is the gist of their enthusiasm for the forthcoming season, and especially after the thin diet of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal years, it is easy to see where they are coming from.

The last three seasons may come to be viewed as an interim period, a curious quirk in the history books. Lost years perhaps, but all will be quickly forgotten if Mourinho is as good as everyone hopes.

He has started well by making a crowd-pleasing signing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a necessary one in Eric Bailly and a sensible one in Henrikh Mkhitaryan. And then there was Paul Pogba's £89 million (S$156 million) world-record transfer, smashing the £85 million Real Madrid paid for Gareth Bale in 2013.

Owners perceived as cautious if not downright penny-pinching just a few seasons ago have now been persuaded to become cavalier again, presumably because they have recently acquired first-hand insight into how on-the-cheap ordinariness damages the product.

United cannot afford to be ordinary, which is why Moyes and van Gaal will be viewed as mistakes. They will not be ordinary under Mourinho, however long he lasts. They will not be talking in terms of transition or three-year plans.

GETTING ACQUAINTED

He's a very young player, an unbelievable midfield player with such physicality but, at the same time, such agility, coordination and skill. What he has to learn now is how to play with us, and the team need to learn how to play with him.

JOSE MOURINHO, Man United manager, on integrating record signing Paul Pogba.

Mourinho's normal preference is to hit the ground running and this season, with no involvement in the Champions League, looks as good an opportunity as any to remind Leicester where the title belongs.

While United fans are undoubtedly happier than they have been for years, the real thing starts tomorrow with a trip to Bournemouth. Only when the new manager's plans take shape on the pitch can he be properly judged.

What Mourinho normally does when taking over a new club is to strengthen and drill the defence, a process he has begun with the acquisition of Bailly. In fact the United defence was the joint-meanest in the league last season, conceding 35 goals, the same as Tottenham.

The problem, and an area in which van Gaal will be judged harshly, was in scoring. United netted 49 goals last season, failing to register at least a half-century for the first time in the Premier League era.

Mourinho is not known for his advocacy of attacking football, but he does have a commitment to winning games and can barely fail to improve on the sterility of the past couple of seasons.

Forwards Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford enjoyed encouraging breakthrough seasons and it would be a pity if the development of either came to be halted through the necessity of playing Ibrahimovic. The 34-year-old Swede will be hoping to maximise his impact at what is likely to be his last big club.

Then there is Wayne Rooney. If Mourinho restores Rooney to the No. 9 or No. 10 position alongside Ibrahimovic, then opportunities for either or both of Martial and Rashford are likely to be limited.

Whereas Mourinho's preferred front two undoubtedly have pedigree and no small amount of finishing prowess, Martial and Rashford clearly have the edge on raw pace.

And there is also the issue of where to play Pogba, who flourished in Juventus' 4-3-3 system but may find himself struggling in his new manager's favoured 4-2-3-1 line-up. The world's most expensive player failed to make an impact for France in a similar system at the European Championship.

Pogba is banned for the Bournemouth match, having been booked twice in last season's Coppa Italia, incurring a one-game ban that has been transferred to England.

The other big decision Mourinho has to make is his attitude towards the Europa League. Assuming it is not a priority, the United side he is putting together would appear to have an outstanding chance of domestic glory.

Never mind the last three years, this season United will resume their designs on the title.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Big signings signal return to glory years'. Print Edition | Subscribe