2016/17 ULTIMATE SEASON PREVIEW

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It’s been a minute! Not since the final season of Sir Alex Ferguson have expectations and excitement at Manchester United ahead of the new season be this high. In the managerial sense at least, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal managed to damp expectations about their campaigns with unorthodox comments. Whilst the Scot failed to acclamatise to the size of the club he managed, the Dutchman sought to drag the club to an incompatible philosophy that was, at best, standing in the face of everything the club is about.

At a point when Manchester United risked oblivion and slow decline into the mediocrity that still plagues Anfield, the club simply had to get the third appointment right! As fate would have it, at a time when one of the more assured managers in the game was out of a job, Louis van Gaal’s position at the club became untenable. Indeed, there is remarkable fortune in Mourinho’s availability at a time when just about every top manager in world football had committed to a top European club for 2016/17.

As it turned out, United were able to get in their own managerial statement ahead of a season that is already the most anticipated in the premier league era. Quite simply, there is little room to keep everyone happy. Six cannot go into four and yet Jose will be joined by Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, Mauriccio Pochettino, Claudio Ranieri and Arsene Wenger to make an impression on the league next season.

For Manchester United, the last three seasons will have made for modest expectations among fans but events of the past three months have accounted for a somewhat rebirth of the club’s swagger as England’s first club and the world’s most commercially successful brand. Ahead of a season when the club will announce record revenue for a football club, the stage has been set for what should undoubtedly be a memorable campaign in one form or the other.

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Because of what he has achieved in his career so far, and the immediacy with which it has been done, Jose Mourinho has an infectious attitude about himself. Unlike the last two managers, he will not and indeed has not moved to damp fans’ expectations ahead of the new season. Indeed, here is one manager with the attitude of winning the lot.

At his unveiling, the Portuguese was careful to express himself in a manner that suggests that the club have finally appointed someone whose personality matches the its size. There was no bickering about modest targets such as an immediate return to the Champions League or leading a modest title challenge. The target is very much to win in the immediate future. And why not? The former Chelsea manager is not known for sticking around too long. It is just as well that he sets up his goals for the short term.

Now, Jose Mourinho is not a manager known for breath taking attacking football. No. But goodness me, given the three seasons of dour football that United fans have endured, the Portuguese’s style will feel like Brazil 1974. Where Louis van Gaal set up the side to muster one shot on target, there is no defensive formation in Mourinho’ school of thought that has such a miserly attacking statistic.

At least we can be guaranteed that United will have much more of a go next term. Indeed, at times last season, that is all United fans were desperate for. In that respect, it is not possible for Jose to set up the side in a more tasteless philosophy. It means even before he has tried, Mourinho has already succeeded in improving the style of play at the club. Such are the dismal standards that anyone was going to inherit from Louis van Gaal.

Perhaps the most crucial box he ticks in comparison with his managerial rivals for the elite positions is that Jose has is the most experienced title winner in the premier league currently. Indeed, it is debatable whether Arsene Wenger, who challenges his tally, even remembers what it takes to last the distance in the increasingly money-laden league.

The Portuguese, often with a knack of leading from the start, knows all about the proverbial guts it takes to ‘do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke.’ He will not a refresher course about the pitfalls of a league that remains the most unpredictable in world football. Certainly, that Leicester City kick off the season as defending Champions should be a substantial warning to the managerial debutants about the wacky nature of the premier league race.

Having had his fingers and no doubt his ego burned by his most recent season at Chelsea, the manager is on his own mission to prove that what went wrong at Stamford Bridge was no fault of his. Indeed, if the target to remain a candidate for the top jobs, the jury will be firmly out if the disaster of London is repeated in Manchester.

The transfer window so far suggests that that is not likely to be the case. Indeed, the Portuguese claims that unlike the summer of 2014, Chelsea’s owners did not fund his transfer plans in 2015 and as a result set him up to put up the worst defence of a league title ever. At Old Trafford, the manager’s transfer plans have been duly executed with such precision that at times, it is already feeling ominous for the rest of the premier league. If history is anything to go by, Jose’s decisive transfer window has a ‘Champions’ tag to it. No pressure then!

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic

As at July 12th  2016, United’s summer transfer spending has resulted into the captures of Eric Bailly from Villareal CF, Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer from Paris Saint Germain and Henrikh Mikhitaryran from BVB Dortmund.

The trio represent a strengthening down the spine of United, effectively adding balance to the side inherited from Louis van Gaal. Of the three, the Armenian is the stand out contributor in terms of his attitude given that unlike the other two, he is in the prime of his career. Mikhitaryan’s goals and assists ratio for his German club last term stands at an incredible 23 goals and 32 assists. Certainly, United reliance on the left flank for creativity has been remedied by this single addition. Whether Jose prefers him on the right flank or in the middle remains to be seen though.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the more political transfer. The Swede, 35 in October, is very much a free hit of a signing. Given that his commercial value to the club will cater for his astronomical wages, the club will feel that it is they who only stand to benefit from this deal. The dearth of arrogance and experience in United’s forward line has been blatant ever since Louis van Gaal ended up with an 18 year old s his prime centre forward at the end of last summer. It was a gap that not even the emergence of Marcus Rashford could fill. You can therefore relate with the manager in terms of where he intends to go with the capture of one of arguably the biggest ego in the game. Not quite Robin van Persie-esque but not just Henrick Larsson-esque as well. More of somewhere in between.

The one with the most question marks is undoubtedly the youngest of the lot. Eric Bailly has quickly progressed through youth levels and and his transfer to Old Trafford sums up the speed at which his development has attracted the eyes of scouts. His talent is borne of the raw physical strength of an African defender but it has since been honed by the ball skills coaching in Spain that has allowed him become a better passer of the ball. It is a combination of traits that gives Jose the confidence of getting the most out of him in a league where his physical attributes will be required more often than they were in La Liga. This is the one signing of the lot that will attest to the manager’s eye for talent from less obvious sources. 

United are by no means done with their summer acquisitions but at least unlike the past few summers, the club can approach the final month of the window with a more calculated approach.

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It is now ‘a thing’ at Manchester United that the position of the captain warrants special discussion. For long, it has been brandished about that Wayne Rooney intends to finish his career in the middle of the park, spraying 40 yard balls around the pitch to anyone who cares to chase them. It’s a rhetoric that informed his position for the England national team at the just concluded European Championships.

Mourinho intends to have none of it though! In a statement that tore into the importance of having a player to spray balls from deep, the manager highlighted that his passes without any pressure from deep would be just as brilliant! It leaves the usual number 10/number 9 conundrum for Wayne next season. Pound for pound, he is currently not the best number 9/10 at the club, his club tally of goals notwithstanding. He could however benefit from a manager that appears to have a clear plan of how to use him. It is already apparent that there have been conversations between player and manger and it will be interesting to watch how Jose solves what has now become a persistent positional crisis for the Manchester United capatin.

What the captain has going for him though is that he is just five goals shy of the ultimate record of Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal haul for the club. It is unthinkable that that record will last till Christmas. When he does smash it, it will be just reward for his long term consistent outlay of goals over a career at United that started in his teenage years.

Indeed, the club will reward the England captain with a testimonial just before the start of the season against his boyhood club Everton at Old Trafford. Ten years at a club in the modern game is no mean feat anymore. Wayne has over the years tested United’s ultra support with two attempts at leaving the club including one to the club down the street. Those unfortunate events have cost him an affection with some fans even though there has hardly ever been public dissent on the terraces of Old Trafford. His name has remained consistently sung in the at the end of every lung bursting run or 40 yard pass let alone goal. He certainly cannot begrudge the United fans for a lack of support despite his off-pitch problems. Indeed, it is expected that he will get a more than decent turn out at Old Trafford for his testimonial.

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As soon as Jose Mourinho was appointed manager, you felt that Louis van Gaal’s transfer plans for United were suddenly vulnerable. The club had planned just the two games in Asia before the Community Shield and Wayne Rooney’s testimonial. Now that we’ve got new management in place, there is a strong desire for the new coaching staff to get up to speed with their new players. That cannot be achieved with the limited number of games scheduled by the Dutchman’s sports science department.

United have since added a couple of more games to their July schedule, starting this Saturday in the North West at the DW Stadium to take on Championship side Wigan Athletic. Whilst the manager is still short of mostof his star names because of the football engagements, it allows him to run the rule over the young players and the squad players before early on.

It will be remembered though that Jose Mourinho has had his eye on the United squad

The expectations have yet again risen for the club, not least because of new management and it feels like there is a return to the aura that Manchester United enjoyed before the departure of Sir Alex. If that feeling is anything to go by, then United fans should be destined for a long overdue spectacular league season.

It’s good to get the footie (or at least some club form of it) back! 

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