The Guardians Jamie Jackson looks at the up coming season for Man U.
One assessment of José Mourinho’s business at the halfway mark of the window might be that it has been underwhelming. The manager has recruited Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk for £52m, paid Porto £19m for Diogo Dalot and signed Lee Grant for £1.5m from Stoke City to become his third-choice goalkeeper.
Whether theses recruits have strengthened the squad is arguable. At Russia 2018 Fred could not dislodge Casemiro or Manchester City’s Fernandinho as Brazil’s defensive midfielder, the 25-year-old failing to feature for a single second.
For United Fred’s role is to be the pivot who allows Paul Pogba to surge forward. That pair join Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini as Mourinho’s midfield options. Yet there is a lack of stardust here, apart from Pogba, and no natural replacement for the Frenchman if he is absent. This is in contrast to City, where Pep Guardiola can choose from David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gündogan.
Full-back is one of the key positions Mourinho believes has to be improved if United are to catch their crosstown rivals. Yet Dalot is a largely untested 19-year-old and Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are converted wingers who will both be 33 when the season starts. Luke Shaw appears to have lost considerable weight via a close-season fitness regime but remains an enigma, while Matteo Darmian may leave along with Daley Blind, who completed his move to Ajax on Tuesday. Mourinho, then, may need to buy again, with Juventus’s Alex Sandro a possible target.
Style of play
This is still the biggest issue for many United fans: the stodgy fare Mourinho’s side serve up. The complaint can be countered by the manager claiming the Europa League and League Cup in his first term, and finishing second last season – the best since the title of 2013. The concern is that Mourinho’s CV shows a career-long preference for dogmatic defence and the approach has seemingly become more entrenched at United. Can he, then, meld the attacking talent of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez into a consistently potent force?
Mourinho has high hopes Sánchez will be far more formidable following a rare close season off. Yet the Chilean’s preparation is not aided by missing the start of the tour because of a “personal administrative issue”, thought to be the denial of a US visa because of Sánchez accepting a suspended prison sentence from Spanish authorities for tax fraud this year.
Will Pogba finally turn it on for Mourinho?
The Frenchman was a standout performer in Russia and crowned his tournament with a sweet left-foot strike in the 4-2 win over Croatia in the final. This means Pogba will arrive back next month following an enforced three-week break as a world champion and surely in the perfect place to produce a campaign of consistent brilliance. Still only 25 he should be the fulcrum who runs the team, pinning opponents back and creating openings, while weighing in with 15 goals a season.
Can he do it? Will Pogba and Mourinho improve a relationship that has been fractured? The first question impacts on the second: Pogba’s challenge is to ensure the answer is in the affirmative. If it is not then United’s season may disappoint.
Win the title – or go very close
By May 2019 six years will have passed since Sir Alex Ferguson landed the most recent of United’s record 20 top-division titles. Mourinho may have secured second last term but he ended trophy-less and the 19-point gap to City indicates what a non-event the race for the Premier League was. Liverpool’s dismantling of Guardiola’s men in the Champions League quarter-finals and the league fixture at Anfield via a fast-and-furious style seems anathema to Mourinho, so he may need to produce a quasi-miracle to finish ahead of City – and Liverpool. If he fails to do so then his job will be in the balance, unless a glittering Champions League challenge is returned. Mourinho, of course, has only once lasted longer than three full seasons as a manager.
Inspire his players by finding an extra bounce in the step
Can Mourinho rediscover the twinkle-in-the-eye persona which was pure box office when landing in English football at Chelsea in summer 2004? Then he was the most attractive of propositions: an electric presence who made serial winning seem a magical feat of ease. At 14 years younger – aged 41 – Mourinho carried scant baggage: all was still a novelty as he followed leading Porto to an unlikely Champions League triumph by making Chelsea England’s top team for the first time in 50 years.
The spark now appears only occasionally; Mourinho is a more sombre man, offering no more than the odd glimpse of the anything-is-possible spirit that prompted the famous self-characterisation as the “special one”, and which surely inspired his players. Restore this and it may give United the extra 1% that defines champions.