The days leading up to this international break proved to be a roller coaster of emotions for Manchester United. It started off with a cathartic 2-1 win over Liverpool, seizing the upper hand in the race for second in the Premier League and dispelling some of the handwringing over the club’s struggles in big matches.
That positivity lasted all of three days, with the Reds crashing out of Europe against Sevilla in midweek. Just like that, United’s Champions League dreams were over and the doom and gloom was back. Beating Brighton & Hove Albion to seal a spot in the FA Cup semi-finals helped a bit, but an air of discontent still lingers over the club.
It might not seem like it now — so soon after the humbling loss to Sevilla — but Manchester United’s rebuild under José Mourinho remains on track. But this past up-and-down week revealed two important points: (1) United are in a much better place than just a few years ago; and (2) they are still far from the finished article.
By any measure — Premier League position, major honors won, acquired talent — today’s United far outpace those dark days under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal.
Back then, the Reds fought tooth and nail just to grab the last Champions League spot. In 2017/18, though, the only question is whether United can hold off challengers for second place.
In the transfer market, gone are the days of settling for second or third choices. Instead, United — and Mourinho — have started flexing their financial muscle to steal coveted players right out from under their rivals’ noses. Every window can’t bring the excitement of luring Romelu Lukaku or Alexis Sánchez, but the club’s renewed confidence in attracting world-class talent has helped the manager reshape his team.
Mourinho pointed much of this out during his unusual twelve-minute monologue last week, which understandably drew accusations of a thin skin. It’s never a good look for a manager to launch his own public defense, but there does seem to be some dissonance between the club’s on-field improvement and supporter dissatisfaction.
A lot of that stems from the feeling that United are not progressing fast enough. To ensure that these small steps forward become giant leaps toward contention in the Premier League and Champions League, there’s definitely still much room for improvement.
Reports came out this week that Mourinho plans a major squad overhaul this summer — with as many as ten players making way for new reinforcements.
And, surprisingly, that should start in defense. For much of this season, United’s backline ranked among Europe’s best — at least in terms of goals allowed — but has noticeably deteriorated in recent weeks. The defense allowed six goals in the last five matches, a number that would be higher if not for David De Gea repeatedly bailing out his teammates. Saturday’s 2-0 win over Brighton marked the first clean sheet since the first leg at Sevilla, but doesn’t mask the need for some high-profile additions.
Luke Shaw looks to be on the way out and both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young aren’t getting any younger. And Phil Jones, although he’s played well for much of this season, cannot be relied on as anything more than a squad player. The 26-year-old center back has proven far too fragile and seems to take forever to bounce back from his litany of injuries.
Further up field, Mourinho needs to get his high-priced stars — namely Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez — firing on all cylinders.
Sánchez has been unsettled all season long, from the drawn-out transfer saga at Arsenal to finally switching clubs in January, so there’s a decent chance that supporters won’t see the Chilean’s best until next season. In any case, he still possesses dazzling talent and needs to chip in with a few big goals in the remaining matches of 2017/18.
Pogba remains the bigger mystery. For much of this season, United sparkled with Pogba and scuffled without him. But the young midfielder has been in and out of the lineup lately, both because of injury and a few head-scratching defensive lapses. Mourinho won’t tolerate the latter — even if Pogba is the star of the team. Both sides might need to bend a bit to get the club’s record signing back to his best.
Even after the disappointing Champions League exit, all is not lost. United play in the FA Cup semi-finals next month at Wembley and still have a reasonable chance at grabbing silverware this season. If not, a trophy-less year — although regrettable — does not necessarily signal a club on the wrong track.
In this world of hot takes, every season seemingly needs to be declared a definitive triumph or outright failure. But, sometimes, it’s just relatively unsatisfying progress. Manchester United undoubtedly took a step forward this year, but might not get a cup to show for it.