A year ago, Manchester United limped to sixth place in the Premier League only to sneak in the Champions League backdoor via May’s UEFA Cup triumph. The squad needed major improvement and manager José Mourinho declared a target of four major acquisitions to keep his United project on the right track.
Let’s look back at a pivotal summer, a turbulent transfer market, and the three (not four) acquisitions who now call Old Trafford home.
The biggest — and most satisfying — signing saw the Reds swoop in and nab Romelu Lukaku right out from under the newly-crowned champs. All along, the Everton forward seemed destined for a return to Stamford Bridge, but Mourinho had other ideas. United hijacked the Chelsea deal and landed their new target man for £75 million in July.
The Belgian got off to a sizzling start with eight goals in his first eight matches. He set the pace for the Reds as they leapt to the top of the table in the 2017/18 season’s opening month.
Lukaku stumbled a bit mid-season, but managed to finish strongly. In all, his 27 goals marked a personal best and promise great things for his future in a red shirt.
The only thing that derailed Lukaku was an ankle injury against Arsenal in late April. He missed United’s last three league matches and the side looked much poorer in his absence. The injury kept Lukaku from starting the FA Cup final at Wembley, limiting him to seventeen ineffective substitute minutes.
Despite a dazzling debut season at Old Trafford, Lukaku still hasn’t shed his reputation as a flat track bully. And, in the Premier League, guilty as charged. He only scored one goal against the rest of the top six and wasted several chances in those crucial matches.
But Lukaku fared better on the big European stage. He scored United’s lone goal in both the Super Cup (vs. Real Madrid) and the Champions League tie with Sevilla.
Romelu Lukaku hit the ground running at Manchester United like few players before him. Most exciting of all? He’s just 25 years old and still getting better.
José Mourinho was going to sign a midfielder — the media just couldn’t decide which one. All summer, speculation veered back and forth between Nemanja Matić and Tottenham’s Eric Dier as the manager’s top choice. Matić always ranked the more likely option, mostly because of Mourinho’s past experience with him in the league-winning Chelsea side of 2014/15.
When the deal finally went through in late July, reactions in Manchester were decidedly mixed. Plenty of hands were wrung over Matić’s advanced age (29) and old rumors of a fall-out between player and manager in Mourinho’s second Chelsea tenure. The latter concern never made much sense — if Matić had really downed tools at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho wouldn’t be handing him a big contract at United.
Happily, Matić proved his doubters wrong almost immediately. In fact, he started so strongly that Chelsea faced some tough questions about why exactly he had been sold to a direct rival. Partnered with Paul Pogba, Matić provided the steel in United’s midfield that had been desperately missing.
All that early season acclaim must have come as quite the surprise to the unassuming Matić. What the stoic midfielder lacks in flash and style, he more than makes up for by breaking up opposing attacks and connecting the defense and midfield with astute distribution.
Matić tailed off a bit from his August heights, but still remained an integral player for the Reds all season long and one of the first names on the team-sheet each week. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s whether Matić will slow down at all as he enters his thirties. But, as a player who relies on positional awareness and tactical acumen, Nemanja Matić should be able to keep doing Manchester United’s dirty work for years to come.
A long-rumored target for the Reds, Victor Lindelöf joined the club early in the transfer window for £31 million. And, from the very start, Mourinho warned that his new center back would be brought along very slowly.
Lindelöf actually started the club’s first competitive match of the season, against Real Madrid in the Super Cup, but only because Eric Bailly and Phil Jones were suspended. He wasn’t awful, but did little to change the manager’s mind and earn more playing time.
When he got on the pitch in league play, Lindelöf showed decent passing skills and a desire to push forward out of defense. His defensive instincts, though, left a lot to be desired.
Mourinho stayed patient with Lindelöf all season long, but he can take it slow for only so long. Lindelöf needs to take a big step forward — and he needs to do it fast.
His best chance for growth might come on loan, with reports already swirling that newly-promoted Wolves are keen on bringing Lindelöf to the West Midlands. It’s a move that makes a lot of sense — Mourinho and Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo have a good relationship and Lindelöf would get plenty of playing time.
These loan rumors show that the United boss hasn’t given up on the 23-year-old Lindelöf, but his patience won’t last forever.