Manchester United 2016 Review: Humiliation, growth, FA Cup glory

Manchester United’s 2016 has had it all; success, failure, boredom, excitement, youthfulness or lack thereof. One thing it has not had is Champions League football, but what defines it is an FA Cup victory and another changeover of managers as Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford.

Coming out of a 2015 stupor (January)

Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United dragged themselves into 2016 without a win in eight games. The sack, it appeared, was inevitable and close. Yet the board kept schtum. The Reds were out of Europe’s elite club competition, the UEFA Champions League, five points off the top four, behind even Crystal Palace. Captain Wayne Rooney was far from firing. Outside Old Trafford as United drew 0-0 against Chelsea on Boxing Day, having suffered four consecutive defeats, Jose Mourinho scarves were fashioned and sold.

It isn’t ridiculous to say that December 2015 was the worst period for the football club since the 1980s.

January, though, was the slightest of improvements as van Gaal somehow remained at the helm. As the New Year blossomed, so did a United win arrive, a welcome moment for suffering Reds. Wayne Rooney provided the inspiration with a wonderful no-look flick to beat Lukasz Fabianski in the Swansea net. A 2-1 win was followed by a fortuitous FA Cup victory against Sheffield United, a 93rd-minute penalty from Captain Rooney, the second of seven goals in seven games for the Englishman. That helped United to a much better January in terms of results, but performances were still overwhelming dull, monotonous and wasteful of the talent in the United side.

Van Gaal and United continued along these lines for much of the following months, not without hiccups.

Consecutive 2-1 defeats came in mid-February. Van Gaal’s head was called for again. Rooney continued in the first of these losses, against Sunderland, despite injury mid-way through the game, ruling him out for a number of weeks. He missed one of the most humiliating moments of the van Gaal-era, defeat to the Danish side FC Midtjylland, primarily remembered previously for the difficult spelling of their name.

A glimpse of a bright future (February)

For much of United’s support, van Gaal’s position was made untenable by defeat to Midtjylland. As in December, the same could not be said for the board.

Injury to Anthony Martial in the warm-up at Old Trafford for the second leg of the Midtjylland tie allowed Marcus Rashford to step in, only his second involvement in the first team squad and his debut. For a disastrous season, or even two, of the most painful moments and sleep-inducing football, Rashford’s impact was both breathtaking and necessary. It was remarkable. Albeit a Thursday night, Old Trafford had a smile on its face again, a special moment to witness again.

That was certainly unexpected. A return to school saw the press greeting Rashford. At the Theatre of Dreams on the following Sunday, Rashford’s impact was sensational. As the youngster would cheekily point out post-match, “just like Europa”, Rashford scored with his first shot, this time in the Premier League. Up against the odds, an inexperienced and young United side with a distinct lack of proven quality defeated Arsenal 3-2 at Old Trafford, led by 18-year-old Rashford on his league debut, with two goals.

This was the van Gaal-era, though, and so it was only a glimpse of success. A week later and United were beaten by West Bromwich Albion, another humiliating moment for the Dutchman. Four days after that, bitter rivals Liverpool handed United a 2-0 defeat, the scoreline kind to the gutless, lethargic performance from United. Away at Anfield in European competition, it was more despairing shock than sadness from United fans after that loss, a resignation of what the side had come to.

Again, it was Rashford who provided some respite for van Gaal. The boy from Wythenshawe won the Manchester Derby, another magic moment. Such a sensation cannot be imagined, cannot be replicated. It was, again, just magnificent.

A glimpse, a glimpse, a glimpse. Nothing good would stick for United. Something would always go wrong at some point. A 3-0 loss at Spurs brought memories of demolition at Arsenal in 2015, similar mistakes, the lack of progress in the side so evident.

Close, but ultimate failure (May)

While the FA Cup offered some wonderful moments and victories, more on that later, the Premier League could hardly offer a comfortable win. United looked uncertain in a 1-0 victory against toothless relegated Aston Villa.

Despite all their problems throughout the season, van Gaal’s Reds were still in contention of top four. There can hardly be a more damning demonstration of last season’s lack of quality in the Premier League that this United side came close to being one of the top four.

And so it was that one of the great peculiarities of football and life came to the forefront as United travelled to Upton Park for the last ever game at the grand old stadium. Having had nothing, expected nothing, with a small glimpse of top four, to have it ripped away was disastrous for Louis van Gaal and painful for the supporters of the football club. Winston Reid’s late header, the final ever goal at the Boleyn Ground, was a fine send-off for one of England’s great grounds, the pre-match actions from West Ham fans less so, but it was gut-wrenching for the travelling support.

The farce of Manchester United’s first half of 2016, which did let Marcus Rashford shine, came to a league close as the last home game of the season was postponed for a bomb threat. A training device was left in the toilets of the ground, farcical, but better safe than sorry; it was not a good demonstration of the professionalism of the club.

The replay was a comfortable victory for United, 3-1 as Rashford scored his last goal of the season, a special debut season. It wasn’t even that, though, only a few months but the 18-year-old had cemented himself into the history books and would soon get his first England call-up.

FA Cup glory (April/May)

Another young forward whose name now adorns the history book is Anthony Martial, the saviour of Louis van Gaal on so many occasions. His late goal in the FA Cup semi-final was special, his celebration – jumping into the fans with all of his teammates – was memorable, unforgettable even.

The FA Cup in 2016 was a saviour, like Martial, for van Gaal and a welcome relief for United fans. Its impact can’t be underestimated now. It is now almost irrelevant, United’s victory hardly mentioned, it didn’t come under their current manager after all. But it was important for silverware to be at Old Trafford again after three miserable years following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

The final Premier League game at Upton Park was dreadful for United, but the final FA Cup game was also between the two sides and it was Marcus Rashford that stole the show with a stunning goal. The ball seemingly trying to tie his legs again, Rashford took it out of his feet, the ball still almost underneath him, sent the defender in four different directions before opening his body and curling it with perfection in off the crossbar. It was a deserved goal, his work all evening coming close to giving United the lead, but it was another unforgettable goal created by the 18-year-old.

Jesse Lingard took up the mantle of saviour in the Final a month later at Wembley. 18-year-old Rashford took United to Wembley for the semi-final, Marouane Fellaini’s knee-goal also vital. 19-year-old Anthony Martial took United to the final and academy graduate 23-year-old Jesse Lingard won the Cup for United. It was a tournament victory that relied on youth.

Had the 2016 FA Cup Final been a Fergie final, not related to van Gaal or this dull United, it would go down as one of the great victories. In extra-time with ten men, a player born a Red and brought through the academy system at Carrington won the game with a thunderous strike and ran into the fans to celebrate.  

Goodbye Louis, Mourinho springs into action (May)

The celebrations were somewhat overshadowed by reports coming out immediately after the game that Louis van Gaal was facing the sack quickly and Jose Mourinho had a contract ready to sign. It turned out to be almost true. The van Gaal-era ended with a collection of good memories, the introduction of Rashford, Martial and Lingard, but a whole host, two years’ worth, of nightmarish games and results.

Mourinho arrived. Both his reputation and the reputation of Manchester United needed fixing. Failure was now not unknown to Mourinho, but it remained rare. United’s board went with a somewhat risky, safe option. A proven winner, but a man whose personality has caused more problems than some say is worth. The Portuguese, on the back of an enforced break after his Chelsea sacking, sprang into action immediately.

Lingard’s FA Cup goal made United champions, of course not of the league. It set up a clash against the real Champions of 2016, Leicester City, in the Community Shield in August.

The season’s traditional curtain-raiser saw much change already at United. Pre-game it was announced that Paul Pogba was set to undergo a medical at Manchester United for a world-record transfer. The atmosphere at the Green Man Pub, the United fans’ pre-match haunt for trips to Wembley, was immense. “Pogba’s coming home,” was quickly invented, “He’s one of our own, Paul Labile Pogba, he was only on loan,” was another excellent one. With beer, flares and sun, United fans had forgotten the previous season and the two before that, the future looked bright. And so it seemed at Wembley an hour or so later as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his first goal for the club to win the Community Shield.

The worried and banned one

By October, despite things looking rosy for Mourinho and United at the beginning of the first international break, things were bleak. Four wins in the first four games set the Reds up for a mighty fall when Pep Guardiola came to Old Trafford and United were destroyed classily in the first 30 minutes. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s United career had started in the worst fashion imaginable, hooked at half-time alongside Jesse Lingard. Form since that 2-1 defeat had been questionable, to say the least.

Mourinho began to mount up touchline bans. United fans, for the main part, didn’t care. The media, of course, did.

Cogs turning, wins and positivity coming out

And it is for this reason, out of a few, that the mood has changed at United. Mourinho has created, once again, an us-against-the-world mentality at Old Trafford. The mood is now one of pleasure at gradual progression. Nothing extraordinary is on show at United, although some of the football has been beautiful, Mkhitaryan’s backheel-flick goal just one demonstration of the talent now held by Mourinho.

Paul Pogba has found his flow, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is firing on all cylinders. There have been scares for Jose Mourinho in his first season; defeats in the UEFA Europa League to Fenerbahce and Feyenoord created a must-win game for the Reds away at Zorya Luhansk. Win, they did, but the threat of not qualifying from a UEFA Europa League group containing Fenerbahce, Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk was a frightening one.

A defeat to Watford had United on three consecutive losses, memories of van Gaal and Moyes flooding back. Extending that run was avoided with an EFL Cup victory, a bright spark going into 2017 as United prepare to play Hull City for a place in the final at Wembley.

In the proud history of Manchester United, 2016 saw traditions of attacking football displaced on many occasions, a UEFA Champions League spot lost, a manager changed. What it will be remembered for many years on from now, though, is the year of an FA Cup victory and when Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Jose Mourinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived at the club. The disastrous first half of 2016 will be forgotten, and instead, the more positive second half will be remembered for its positive signs of growth, the first real signs of steps towards the top being taken for a number of years.