Premier League Preview: Manchester United

What a first season in charge for José Mourinho at Old Trafford. He inherited a royal mess, left behind by three years of mismanagement on and off the field by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. Mourinho, a serial winner, brought silverware back to the red side of Manchester, claiming two major trophies (EFL Cup and UEFA Europa League) plus the FA Community Shield. There was a run to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in there as well. In the Cup competitions, United shined. But in the Premier League, they were a maddening enigma. Their defense was outstanding; only Spurs conceded fewer than their 29 goals against. Even so, United finished one place worse than in 2015-16, thanks to 15 draws in the league. Many of those came at home, against teams that United are expected to beat: Stoke, Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth, West Brom, and Swansea highlighting a lengthy list. Manchester United will have to score more goals this season to challenge for the title once again. They scored at least 23 fewer goals than each of the five teams in front of them last season. If not for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who knows where they would have ended up. With the big Swede gone – at least for now – and a big Belgian, Romelu Lukaku, brought in to replace him, United hope to find the back of the next much more often in 2017-18.

2016-17 Record & Finish
18-15-5 (W-D-L), 69 points, 6th in the Premier League
+25 GD (54 GF, 29 GA)

Manager
José Mourinho – 2nd season with Manchester United

jose

Ins and Outs
Victor Lindelöf (£29.75 million from SL Benfica)
Romelu Lukaku (£72 million from Everton)
Nemanja Matic (£38 million from Chelsea)

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (released)
Adnan Januzaj (£7.23 million to Real Sociedad)
Sam Johnstone (on loan to Aston Villa)
Wayne Rooney (free to Everton)

X-factor
Anthony Martial

martial

Remember that time way back in the day when Martial was the world’s most expensive teenager and he led United in scoring during his first season in England? Hard to believe that was only two years ago. The flying Frenchman had a difficult sophomore season in Manchester, and his playing time and production dropped accordingly. He often looked indifferent and lost on the field under Mourinho, and there was talk of him possibly even leaving the club this transfer window. But Martial gave us a glimpse during United’s preseason tour of the US as to why they spent so much money to bring him across the Channel in 2015. His set-up of United’s goal against Real Madrid at Levi’s Stadium was truly world class. He scored a beauty in the inaugural preseason game at LA Galaxy as well. If that positive start foreshadows better things from Martial this season, Manchester United will score a lot more than 54 Premier League goals in 2017-18. Martial can easily score 10 or more once again, which would take pressure off the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford up front and Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in midfield. You know what you’ll get out of Lukaku and Rashford, so if Martial can slide back in and become another potent offensive weapon, United could be just about unstoppable going forward.

Best Case Scenario
It’s said that sophomores slump in their second season, but José Mourinho has historically enjoyed his greatest success during his second season in charge, regardless of where he’s managed. If he keeps that streak alive this campaign, Manchester United supporters will have a lot to cheer about this spring. A Champions League title is probably still out of reach; United have missed Europe’s premier club competition twice in the last three seasons and haven’t advanced to the knockout round since 2013. But they absolutely can compete for and even win the Premier League title this season. Last spring, Mourinho was very vocal (isn’t he always?) about prioritizing the Europa League over the Premier League as United’s best (read: easier) road into the Champions League. Turned out he was right, but the Red Devils stumbled to the finish line domestically and ended up sixth. This year, you can bet Mourinho’s focus will be on success in England, and he will be gunning to win at least two trophies, perhaps a league and FA Cup double? It’s not easy to do – just ask Antonio Conte. But United have the right man in charge, and they’re bringing in more of the right personnel. I expect similar defensive prowess with a much better attack this season that nets at least 75 goals.

UEL winners

Worst Case Scenario
There’s no way around it: a trophyless season would be a disaster for Manchester United in 2017-18. That silverware will likely have to come in England, as this United squad isn’t quite ready to win the Champions League this year. But if they crash out anywhere before the quarterfinals, that would also be disastrous. If United get off to a slow start, the grumbling and anxiety will start before Thanksgiving at Old Trafford, especially considering the relatively easy start they have on paper. If results and performances at home don’t improve, the 75,000 plus United faithful at the Theater of Dreams will grow restless and demand changes. If the injury bug bites hard once again this year, especially in defense, Mourinho will have to piece together his defensive unit in front of David de Gea. If Lukaku gets off to a slow start – and if Álvaro Morata hits the ground running at Chelsea – I probably don’t even need to finish that sentence. In a nutshell, Manchester United’s 2017-18 season will go one of two ways: either really well with a legitimate run at the league title and cup silverware, or it will blow up epically, horribly in Mourinho’s face, resulting in no trophies and another finish outside the top four.

If I were in charge for a day…
I would sell the players who aren’t good enough for Manchester United, and I would give more of the promising young players regular minutes this season. Who would be shown the door? Daley Blind – too slow, can play many different positions but isn’t particularly good at any of them, and why the hell is he the one usually taking corners? Phil Jones – can’t stay healthy for more than a couple months at a time, and when all of United’s center backs are healthy, he’s no more than the fourth-best option. Matteo Darmian – the Italian international can play either full back position, and was even an emergency center back against Swansea in April – but he offers very little in attack, and I’m not sold on his defending, either. I’d let Ashley Young leave as well. A former winger turned midfielder turned auxiliary full back, Young is no more than a back up at any of those spots in United’s current squad. It’s time to let him move on and get regular playing time elsewhere. Those departures free up some room on the depth for bright young talents such as Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, and Demi Mitchell. They might not be ready for consistent starting roles – not yet, anyway – but it’s time to turn them loose and see what they can do for the senior team.

Here’s my starting 11 for next Sunday’s opener against West Ham:
de Gea; Valencia, Lindelöf, Bailly, Tuanzebe; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Rashford, Martial; Lukaku

It’s hard to leave Ander Herrera out of the starting line-up, but I’d love to see a Matic-Pogba partnership in midfield. When Luke Shaw returns, he’s my starting left back, and Marcos Rojo will battle for one of the center back places once he returns around New Year’s.

Manchester United have a glorious opportunity to get off to a flying start, as the Premier League schedule makers have dealt them a very kind hand for their first seven games. The Red Devils should be unbeaten – and have a chance to be perfect – through the first two international breaks:

Aug. 13 – vs. West Ham
Aug. 19 – at Swansea
Aug. 26 – vs. Leicester
Sept. 9 – at Stoke
Sept. 17 – vs. Everton
Sept. 23 – at Southampton
Sept. 30 – vs. Crystal Palace

Tomorrow, we’ll check in on José Mourinho’s best buddy, Arsène Wenger, at Arsenal. The dour old Frenchman is back for two more seasons at the Emirates, after much pondering, posturing, and planes carrying banners flying overhead. Will Arsenal continue their decline under one of the last bastions of the old managerial guard? Or can Wenger lead the Gunners back to the promised land?

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

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