Despite spending around £150m on transfers this summer, Manchester United have hardly seen any upgrade to their underperforming squad from last season with the arrivals plugging the voids more than anything. Jose Mourinho will only repeat his last season missing out on the title yet again.
It is now or never for Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese gaffer had managed to escape criticism by the skin of his teeth last season when the Red Devils won the Europa League beating AFC Ajax 2-0. All the lacklustre displays in the Premier League, the arrogant press conferences - both before and after the games, the sly digs at fellow managers, somehow had gotten justified by the ‘treble’ that United managed to complete by the end.
However, in a long and gruelling league like the English Premier League, luck doesn’t factor in always, and sooner or later one has to perform. Manchester United churned out a staggering 15 draws last season, two more than relegated side Middlesbrough. But such dismal was the performance of the middle and lower table teams that United still managed to finish sixth in the league.
And as has always been the case with Jose Mourinho- failure means more spending. Last summer Mourinho had brought in French midfielder Paul Pogba for a record £89 million. It was soon followed by the realization that the towering anchorman would need a potential partner to spread his wings optimally, which led United to splurge another £40 million for Nemanja Matic this summer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s uncertainty and Wayne Rooney’s slump in form meant United had to pump in £75 million for former Everton hitman Romelu Lukaku now, which is a record between two British clubs. Apart from the major arrivals, United also had to shore up their defence, which meant getting in Eric Bailly for £30 million last season and Victor Lindelof for £31 million this summer. They still had little space in the dressing room so they bought in 2015 Bundesliga Player of the Season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan for £30 million.
The Glazer family, who own Manchester United, has splashed £295 million on Jose Mourinho’s transfer priorities in the past two seasons. And it goes without saying that if he underperforms this season too, he is likely to face the sword from the club and the sledgehammer from social media.
The widely popular trend of Jose Mourinho winning the title in his second season has led the bookies to keep United among the top three favourites to win the Premier League this time. However, if taken a closer look at United’s transfer activities, they are more plugging in the voids left by the clear out last season than an upgrade and is unlikely to bring any significant changes whatsoever. Losing Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger gave way for Matic and Rooney’s departure and Ibrahimovic’s injury demanded Romelu Lukaku.
Jose Mourinho’s tactics are crystal clear. By bringing in the likes of Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic, and Romelu Lukaku, who are gigantic in physique, the Portuguese aims at bullying his opponents by physically dominating them. A successful formula, which was first started by Arsenal back at the start of the 21 century in the likes of Patrick Viera and Sol Campbell and modified by Mourinho is his first stint with Chelsea.
However, a couple of physically superior men bulldozing at their opponents at every go is outdated tactics now. And a rigorous league like that of England would only see United dominating possession without any real breakthrough. Clubs like West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Stoke City, who are always happy to sit back, absorb the pressure and slow down the tempo of the game at every opportunity, would remain unmoved by it. The likes of Bournemouth and Burnley were able to keep United offshore last season in their own backyard.
Unlocking opponent’s defence was a huge concern last season for United. The lack of a specialist playmaker restricted United to score just 54 goals in 38 games with a squad devoid of Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney succumbing to a terrible conversion rate. Nothing has changed this season and the huge gap in the number 10 position remains United’s vulnerability yet again.
Following United’s failure to sign Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan, they are solely banking on the Spanish international to create chances. And while Mata is undeniably a top quality in the attacking midfield, his patchy form of late and groin operation last season doesn’t make him a safe bet anymore. Mourinho knew it and his desperation to bring Matic from defending champions Chelsea pretty much explains his idea of playing a provider from the deep midfield.
Matic has won two Premier League titles with Chelsea and their willingness to sell him despite it should have given Mourinho the clear indication of the Serbian’s dwindling potential. While at 194 cm the midfielder would definitely meet Mourinho’s expectation of being physically domineering, his ability to distribute the ball is low compared to what other title contenders have.
Matic created only 27 chances for Chelsea last season, compared to Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka’s 34 or Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson’s 31; one of whom had a debut season while the other missed more than half of it due to injuries. Mourinho has stated Matic a ‘genius’ in their pre-season tour but it’s what the critics call him that defines him more aptly, ‘the Portuguese personified’. A force on the decline and is nothing more than an intimidating frame.
While the same cannot be said about Lukaku, the Belgian coming as an elevation to the likes of Ibrahimovic or Rooney is debatable. It’s rare to find a 20-goal striker in EPL and Lukaku’s feat last season was definitely a one-time occurrence. His season tally has been 18, 10, 15 and 17 prior to that, for the Toffees and as far as his performance in big games is concerned Everton haven’t really played any in the past five seasons.
Against the top six clubs last season, which includes Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and United, Lukaku managed to score just thrice in 12 games. Hence, his self-mockery in the Super Cup game against Real Madrid is quite explanatory. Apart from him, Vincent Lindelof remains a huge gamble and if taken his pre-season form into consideration, we are more likely to see Chris Smalling or Marcos Rojo starting alongside Eric Bailly than the Swedish centre-half.
Although one more player is expected to arrive at Old Trafford before the window closes, it is widely believed to strengthen the left back’s role that is currently lacking a natural option. The frustrating injuries to Luke Shaw have forced Mourinho to play Matteo Darmian in that position often. He even went for a new three-at-the-back setup last game against Real Madrid, deploying Jese Lingard in the left wing-back role that horribly backfired.
Manchester United face West Ham United, Leicester City and Everton in their first five league fixtures where Jose Mourinho should be more than informed about where they actually stand in the season ahead for them. Notwithstanding the 4-0 win over the West Ham United, going by their new arrivals and Mourinho’s hackneyed tactics, United don’t stand any real chance of going all the way this season.