The Guardians Jamie Jackson looks at the upcoming season for Man U.
“José Mourinho has been a discontented figure in recent weeks and the season must start well if they are to challenge City.
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 3rd (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 2nd
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 7-1
Contretemps, a reluctant U-turn and the declaration: “I didn’t learn anything.” José Mourinho offered maximum José Mourinho during a Manchester United pre-season tour of the US that came close to farce.
The fascination now is just how United will begin their Premier League campaign after a five-game trip that took in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Santa Clara, Ann Arbor and Miami and ended with two wins, two draws and a defeat. A 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena has only further increased the Portuguese’s pessimism.
nited’s opening two outings are Old Trafford’s curtain raiser with Leicester and the journey to Brighton. These games are mentioned because of one of the oddest bits of discourse Mourinho offered up during the trip.
At United’s UCLA training base in LA he voiced concern that the 13 frontline players he flew to the States without due to post-World Cup breaks would render his side seriously disadvantaged.
Mourinho pointed to Leicester missing only Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy for this same reason and Brighton none. There was no mention of Leicester’s best player, Riyad Mahrez, being sold to Manchester City so severely weakening them, and he seemed to forget the smarts that have made him a serial winner and how he leads the juggernaut that is United.
Thus continued a theme that began at his opening media conference when he declared preparation for 2018-19 to be “very bad”. Those two words became Mourinho’s mantra when continually pointing to the missing footballers and lack of major transfers since Fred’s signing in June.
These complaints were the basis of Mourinho’s disputes, which, in turn, were fuelled by the pressure he is under. Although United finished second last season, a best since the 2012-13 title triumph, they trailed 19 points behind City.
His mission, then, for the season is clear: he has to make United true contenders and not allow another procession from City. Or, worse, be spectators in a City-Liverpool tussle as the latter look certain to challenge.
After losing to Bayern Munich 1-0 on Sunday Mourinho once again warned of a “difficult season”, again making pointed remarks about transfers. “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens. The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody. If we don’t make our team better, it will be a difficult season for us.”
The club have been linked with a move for Bayern’s Jérôme Boateng but Mourinho is also contending with injuries to Nemanja Matic, Antonio Valencia and Diogo Dalot, the 19-year-old full-back signed from Porto who might have replaced the latter if fit.
All of this throws up the question of whether Mourinho might again implode in classic third-season fashion as he previously did at Chelsea (twice) and Real Madrid.
Following the opening two matches United face Tottenham (home), Burnley, Watford (each away), Wolverhampton (h), West Ham (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Everton (h) and Bournemouth (a). These 11 games take United to a date with City at the Etihad Stadium on 10 November. By then everyone should be available and, if Mourinho acquires a centre-back – Maguire is on the list alongside Boateng – his strongest XI might read: De Gea; Valencia/Dalot, Bailly, Maguire/Boateng, Young/Shaw; Fred, Matic, Pogba; Lingard, Lukaku, Sánchez.
A picture will have started to form regarding how United will fare, before a derby against the champions and opponents they must have ambitions of beating if they are to end United’s six-year championship drought. There are no guarantees if United depart east Manchester in a lofty position they will end in first place but, if they are in struggling mode, serious questions regarding Mourinho’s future will be aired.
Put simply, he has to keep United in the race until May. Last year they won nothing and Mourinho escaped serious scrutiny due to a second-place finish he could – and did – present as progression from a first season when United trailed in sixth, 24 points from the champions, Chelsea.
This season Mourinho has to prove he is the man to move the club on from the gilded Sir Alex Ferguson era: only claiming title No 21 or going mightily close will do. To achieve this United will have to take the early part of the campaign by storm as it will be a shock if City fail to do so.
Even if Maguire, Boateng or Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic (also on Mourinho’s list) are added, the window is still rated as middling. In this scenario the manager will have to look from within. Required will be a career-high season from Paul Pogba, who has thus far misfired for him, and from Alexis Sánchez, who was below par after joining in January.
A big question mark remains over the full-backs. Valencia and Ashley Young are 33 when the season starts and whether the untested Dalot and the enigma that is Luke Shaw can step up and help elevate United is debatable.
Anthony Martial’s future is another imponderable. He has seriously fallen out with the manager and following the birth of his child faces disciplinary action for failing to train. If it seems certain Martial will leave – both parties wish this – should Mourinho fail to sign an attacker, and the Frenchman does not get his move, pragmatism means he may be seen in United colours again.
The situation is a mess. So, too, was the tour. Mourinho has to ensure the season does not go the same way. If it does, he may be relieved of his duties and United will require a fourth new manager in six years.