2017-18 club preview: Manchester United

United finally a Mourinho team

After a year of transition, manager has the personnel to execute his preferred game plan

LONDON • Although they won the League Cup and Europa League last season, a sixth-placed Premier League finish cannot be heralded as a success for a club of Manchester United's size and pedigree.

With the new season fast approaching, however, there is an air of optimism around Old Trafford that manager Jose Mourinho has a squad he can work his magic on.

The Portuguese identified two key positions to strengthen in the close season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goals needed replacing, and in Romelu Lukaku, Mourinho has a direct, channel-running hitman with a scoring record to rival the very best.

At the start of the transfer window, the 54-year-old identified Lukaku as the prime target. After Ibrahimovic's serious knee injury, the manager decided Lukaku's 88 league goals since 2012 - only Manchester City's Sergio Aguero has more in that time - made him the ideal spearhead.

Mourinho is not a possession-based coach. United strolled to Europa League glory against Ajax in May with less than 31 per cent of the ball.

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Lukaku has the engine to make the runs for midfielder Paul Pogba to pick with his long-range passes on the counter, but can still act as that first line of defence to appease his cautious manager.

"Some people said they (United) did not play good football, but we are not in the circus," former United full-back Patrice Evra told MUTV. "If you want to enjoy football then, yes 2008 was great and different, but people have to forget that and concentrate on this current Manchester United team."

This United team now comes complete with Mourinho's piece de resistance from his summer transfer activity.

Whether it was Costinha at Porto - a player Mourinho described as his "assistant coach on the pitch", or Claude Makelele at Chelsea, that holding midfielder is the one Mourinho has built his teams around.

Nemanja Matic, who anchored Chelsea to Premier League glory under Mourinho in 2014-15, completed his move to United last Monday and Mourinho has his fulcrum once again.

"Nemanja is a Jose Mourinho player," Mourinho said. "He represents everything we want in a footballer."

Matic's arrival means Pogba will no longer be asked to operate on the peripatetic basis that had him flitting between No. 6 and No. 8 and, at times, No. 10.

The France international can concentrate on being the surging midfielder the manager wishes, especially after United scored a meagre 54 league goals last season - the poorest of the top seven teams.

With Victor Lindelof providing additional defensive cover, all the pieces are in place.

Mourinho is keen to make a forward his fourth signing of the transfer window and United have a continuing interest in Real Madrid's Gareth Bale.

But, in a move that will disappoint Mourinho, Bale was assured last week that he is the future of Real and the Spanish club will not try to buy Monaco's Kylian Mbappe until next summer.

With Cristiano Ronaldo turning 33 in February, the European champions view the Welshman as having a long-term future in Zinedine Zidane's side.

Ed Woodward, United's executive vice-chairman, will continue to monitor Bale's situation at the Bernabeu. However, given Real's intent that he should stay and the player's desire to do so, it seems unlikely United will be able to prise him away.

The formation Mourinho will deploy in the new season remains unclear, but the fact he has so many options is a cause for great excitement among United fans.

After a first season of transition, this is now a Mourinho team. The football may not always be the most attractive, but his conservative focus has proven successful throughout Europe.

Mourinho has the personnel to exert this style of play, and, should his new arrivals produce the goods, a serious title tilt could well be on the cards.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'United finally a Mourinho team'. Print Edition | Subscribe