After three months of anticipation, the Premier League finally returns this weekend. It’s set to be the most competitive season to date, particularly at the top. Manchester United begin the 2017-18 campaign at home to West Ham United on Sunday where they’ll come up against a familiar face in Javier Hernandez.
Last time out, progress but a poor league finish
Jose Mourinho begins his second season as United boss. He had a strange but successful first season. While United ended up sixth, a below par finish, they won the EFL Cup and UEFA Europa League and thus qualifying for the UEFA Champions League – which was a must.
It was a frustrating one in the league though. United drew 15 games, more than anyone else in the top flight. ‘1-1’ is a scoreline Red Devils fans don’t want to see nearly as much.
Under Louis Van Gaal it was defeats and a lack of creativity that was the problem. Under Mourinho it was draws and missing chances so surely the next logical step is wins and scoring those chances.
What to expect
A title challenge has to be expected at Old Trafford. Despite having that same ambition every year, the last four have ended up being about the top four and United have failed to do that in three of them
Mourinho usually fares better in his second season. A major problem last year was the Europa League. Thursday-Sunday football is gruelling, particularly away from home. An example is, United played Rostov from Russia in the last 16. They travelled back in the early hours of Friday morning, had a five hour flight so only really had Saturday to train before playing on the Sunday.
The Red Devils are in the Champions League. Sometimes you can play on a Tuesday and then play on Saturday or even Sunday. It’s easier to manage. This should mean better league performances and less fatigue. United conceded a lot of late goals, particularly at home. Often they’d be 1-0 up and then concede with ten minutes to go. This season, the squad should be fresher therefore will be able to see out games.
New signing Nemanja Matic will be pivotal. He protects the back four, breaks up play and starts attacks but he’ll also help Paul Pogba. He will give the Frenchman the license to bomb forward and have more influence on matches.
Pogba will be now make more runs into the penalty area and score more goals. He actually created a hell of a lot of chances and hit the woodwork nine times himself. He had a mixed campaign last year. He no longer has the weight of the price tag now seeing as Neymar’s fee has dwarfed it. He’s had a year to adjust back to English football so it’s expected he’ll improve.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan missed most of the early months of the season as he began out of favour under the Special One. He became a key player, particularly in Europe where he scored six goals. His talent is there for all to see so a whole season with him in form could be game changing for United.
After a sensational first season, Anthony Martial found it tough last season. He played a lot more than anyone thought in 2015-16 and then went to the Euro’s and reached the final with France. Like Pogba, he didn’t have a pre-season. This time he has and he’s performed well. Martial will hopefully rediscover the form from two years ago.
Overall United should challenge for the title but will probably just miss out. A 2nd/3rd place finish is probable and satisfactory. There’s also the Champions League where Mourinho will want to at least reach the knockout stages which will be a respectable achievement.
It’s been a good transfer window but Mourinho wanted better. He’s 75% satisfied. It’s no secret he wanted four players, the fourth being a wide man (Ivan Perisic or Gareth Bale).
The three he’s got were all needed and have massively improved the team without doubt. Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic has departed (for now), Romelu Lukaku is probably the best possible replacement. It looked like it would be Alvaro Morata but after Real Madrid played hard ball, Mourinho turned to the Belgian.
Lukaku scored 26 goals in all competitions last season and has progressed in each season at Everton. He notoriously scores against teams outside the top seven, which United couldn’t do last year. He is a different striker to Ibrahimovic. Lukaku will run in behind and stretch defences. He’s powerful, strong and physical. He already has one competitive goal (it should have been two). United fans will hope that missed chance in the Super Cup means that habit is out his system now. He’ll certainly score goals.
Matic is arguably the best signing. It appears Antonio Conte isn’t happy to see him leave Stamford Bridge which says a lot. He’s won two of the last three Premier League titles. He’s one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and will give freedom to Pogba. He was United’ best player in the Super Cup.
The signing of Victor Lindelof in June seems like an age ago. The 22 year-old joined from Benfica for £30.7m, similar price to Eric Bailly. He has bags of potential but has found it tough during pre-season but he deserves time. United needed a long term partner to Bailly and it’s a work in progress. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo (when he returns) will provide decent cover.
Going out, Wayne Rooney inevitably left and re-joined Everton, it was a move that suited all parties. He was in and out of the team and hasn’t been to the level we’re used to from him for a few years now.
Adnan Januzaj also left for Real Sociedad for £9m. It’s been evident for quite a while now that he doesn’t have the attitude to make it at United. He was disappointing at Sunderland, for all his talent he seems to lack end product.
Pre-season round up
United have had a solid pre-season. Last years was a disaster. A 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in China and a cancelled friendly against City.
This time Mourinho packed it with games against different kinds of opposition in different climates. There were two wins against MLS sides who were at peak fitness as it was mid-season for them. Then the tests of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona in the heat where United won two and lost one. They then travelled to Oslo to face Valerenga in a different climate and comfortably won 3-0. United’s final friendly was against Sampdoria in Dublin which they won 2-1. The Super Cup final against probably the best team on the planet was always going to be difficult and despite Los Blancos’ dominance, it was only 2-1.
Strengths and weaknesses
It seems that missing chances is still a big problem for Mourinho’s men. Lukaku and Rashford missed big opportunities against Real and it’s something that has to improve. They have the players and the manager to do that though.
United have a big squad, with plenty of options in all positons, their depth compared to Liverpool and Chelsea for example is a lot stronger.
Any Mourinho side will be strong defensively and United should continue that solidity. They do look weak at left back though. There is so much hope on Luke Shaw fulfilling his potential but he has failed to stay fit in any of his three seasons, all the we all sympathise with his leg break back in 2015.
United will definitely create chances with the likes of Pogba, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Herrera and Martial in the side. They have won three trophies (four if you count the Community Shield) in the last two seasons so they’re developing a winning mentality and you always back Mourinho in a cup final situation.
Youngster to watch
There are two or three young players who could breakthrough this season. Firstly, a familiar name is Andreas Pereira. The Brazilian has already got 13 appearances and one goal to his name for United.
The midfielder spent last season on loan at Granada where he played 37 times and scored five goals in a team that really struggled and finished bottom. It was certainly a good learning curve and toughening up process.
He’s predominantly a winger but Mourinho has deployed him in a central midfield role and also a number ten during pre-season so it will be interesting to see where he fits him. He will see a lot of action in the cups and as and when the inevitable injuries come, he will step into the breach and don’t be shocked if he impresses and stays in the team. Others to keep your eye on are Scott McTominay in midfield and 16 year-old Angel Gomes who's a terrific talent.