Manchester United’s 2017/18 campaign ended in a bitter and disappointing 1-0 loss to hated rivals Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. José Mourinho’s men had most of the possession, but met a parked bus back line that came out with the goal of disrupting and frustrating the opposition.
Another rare trophyless campaign for a club that had only known riches and glory for over two decades. The fanbase has become more divided on Mourinho following not only the cup final failure, but also an abysmal Champions League knockout round display and a 19-pt gap between the Reds and Premier League Champions Manchester City. With the summer transfer window fast approaching the anxiety has only increased over speculation that Mourinho will bring in more older players like Alexis Sánchez, favoring in form final products over developing potential world class players such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial (the latter may even be departing this July).
But before looking forward, let’s look back at what was done right and what was done wrong this past season.
High 1: Midfield Progress
Even in the final days of Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s midfield dominance had entered its final days. Michael Carrick was a reliable maestro, but who else was there? Ryan Giggs had adjusted to more of a central role, but was entering his 40s and retired. Paul Scholes had to be called out of retirement to bring much needed stability to a young and inefficient midfield, but again retired. Tom Cleverley was a bust, and Shinji Kagawa was given no chance. Post-Fergie, Bastian Schweinsteiger was far past his best by the time he traded Bavarian red for Mancunian red, and Morgan Schneiderlin was quickly sussed out as a pretender.
The success stories so far: Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, and Nemanja Matić.
Mata is fast approaching the end of his time as a consistent starter, but he shared the spotlight with Wayne Rooney as a standout outfield player in frustratingly underwhelming Moyes and Van Gaal teams. However, those days are done, and it’s time for the Herrera, Pogba, and Matić era as Mata will either move permanently to the bench or leave the club all together.
Low 1: Competitiveness
Whether in the league or cup competitions United simply did not have the courage to take risks. Perhaps Mourinho did not feel confident in his squad’s ability to challenge for silverware, but that isn’t the point. At United the fans demand that confidence, and the team did not deserve that trust.
Manchester United set the tone for their league campaign against Liverpool at Anfield on October 14, 2017. United’s defense held strong against wave after wave of Liverpool’s attacks, but that wasn’t the takeaway. United went into the match wanting a point, and that’s what they got. Champions don’t settle for points, especially against their biggest rivals. It is even considered cowardly by many football fans to be so intimidated by opposition’s atmosphere that a win would be too risky to go for.
The League Cup, though not the most glamorous competition, is still a cup in which United were the defending champions. Had they beaten Bristol City they would have taken part in an exciting 2-leg Manchester Derby semi-final, but they fell flat on their faces. Regardless of the competition, challenging City for silverware is what Mourinho needs to do to keep up with the Noisy Neighbors, or United will begin to lose out to top transfer targets.
The UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie vs Sevilla is what many look to as the most disappointing moment of the season. United parked the bus against the Spaniards in Seville, a move many expected, but to take the pitch on a European night at Old Trafford and lose 2-1 to a side that comes nowhere near United on paper was sickening to watch. To make matters worse José followed up the loss with an infamous 12 minute rant, in which he went after players, fans, and the board. Once again José blamed his problems on anyone and anything but his own conservative tactics.
Finally, the FA Cup Final.
José accurately pointed out that Chelsea did not play well, and United controlled much of the game. What matters, however, is the goal finding the back of the damn net. United may have controlled the ball, but what’s the point if they don’t know what to do with it? To his credit, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford stood out at times as playmakers and shot creators, but they received little to no help from Alexis Sánchez, who was once again ineffective on the wing and behind the striker. The injury to Romelu Lukaku ahead of the World Cup was always going to be a tricky situation for player and manager, but even the minutes he had as a sub were inefficient.
United simply lacked creativity and leadership in the FA Cup final and in the other competitions. If Mourinho wants to stay on as manager long term he needs to figure out how to attack and take risks when the occasion calls for it.
High 2: Finding a New No. 9
Perhaps the best outfield player to come in and make an impact for United was Romelu Lukaku. His transfer was consistently criticized by the media and writers as an overpriced gamble on a position where there were better options.
Lukaku shut them up right away.
Alvaro Morata, the player Lukaku was constantly unfairly compared to, finished the season with 15 goals and 6 assists in all competitions for Chelsea. Much of his production came in the first half of the season, and he has since been linked with a move away after a rapid decline in 2018.
Lukaku finished the season with 28 goals and 7 assists in all competitions. He proved he was the right man to replace Zlatan’s production from a year ago, and he’s still only 25 with many more goals to come.
The task now for Mourinho is to give him some help on offense. Rashford, Lingard, and Martial all contributed their fair share of goals and assists, but none of them were able to hit their stride consistently or at the same time as the others. With Alexis seemingly forcing Martial out, Mourinho must carefully consider his options going forward, and how to appropriately arrange his attacking side for the 2018/19 season.
Low 2: Player Management
A consistent criticism of José Mourinho has been his management of players who many fans deem vital to the future of the club. In particular Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford have seen reduced playing time despite contributions, but the most public issues has been the benching of Anthony Martial.
Martial is perhaps the only successful signing of the Louis Van Gaal era. He was United’s top scorer with 17 goals in his debut season, but has failed to impress José enough to remain a regular starter on the left wing. He has since only managed 8 and 11 goals in 2016/17 and 2017/18 respectively. The arrival and prioritization of Alexis Sánchez in January saw Martial ride the bench for the rest of the season.
Martial recently missed the cut for the French World Cup squad, something many fans blame José for. It may be the final push out the door as the young winger looks for more playing time to get his career back on track.
José’s history of isolating players and pushing them out of the club is not a tactic that will sit well with United fans, especially when fan favorites like Martial and Rashford come under attack. The manager must also realize that young players who are unfinished projects are the players fans want at United. The club has produced so many talented phenomenons that long term success has become the norm. Older in form players may bring some instant success to the team, but that’s not what United are built to support. José has a squad that possess enormous potential, but if he sells it for more older players like Alexis and Matić he’ll be just another in a line of failed Sir Alex successors.
High 3: Transfer Culture
One area where the Mourinho era has stood apart from Moyes and Van Gaal has been the success in acquiring quality transfers.
Lukaku and Matić were both key members of the squad this season. Lukaku helped keep up the improved scoring record from 2013-2016, and looks to be an important player for years to come (see above No. 9 section).
Nemanja Matić, though not a flashy or prolific player, has been a rock for United’s midfield. His pairing with Paul Pogba takes significantly less defensive pressure off of the Frenchman, allowing him more freedom in attack. The balance isn’t perfect yet, but Pogba has looked much more comfortable than he did in his first season back at the club. Matić also provides extra insurance for the back line, a position group aided by the arrival of Eric Bailly. David De Gea can make saves for days, but the more help he gets the better.
Victor Lindelöf, the third summer 2017 signing, may not have made enormous contributions in his first season as a Red, but the young centre back has made progress in adapting to the English game, and his European experience showed in the group stage as well as the first leg against Sevilla. He has more development to do, but he is a promising young player.
Alexis Sánchez has been a complicated topic for United fans, but regardless of the Martial situation he is a Red now and he appears to be a regular. Alexis’ arrival proved that Mourinho has the resources to make major roster moves, but also that United can still win transfer battles.
Alexis’ performances at United haven’t exactly lived up to the hype. He’s dribbled himself out of possession numerous times, he hasn’t been as prolific a scorer as many hoped he would be, and “lacking” would be an understatement when it comes to developing chemistry with his teammates.
The bright side of this? He’s only been at the club for 4 months now.
January transfers are immediately thrown into the fire, and it can be harder to make an impact. It does seem that José has put too much trust in him in big games when he just isn’t performing at the highest level consistently, but it was always going to take time for him to adjust. With a summer and pre season to continue adjusting to his new teammates Alexis will have no excuses going into next season. It may be a lot of pressure, but he’s a player who has shown he can handle it.
All in all, United have built a side capable of challenging for silverware. Mourinho may not see it yet, but the fans do, and he needs to make his players believe they can achieve at a higher level before they can go out and do it. He has proven he can bring in the talent, he just needs to get them in sync.
Low 3: Mourinho is Losing the Fans
It’s quite simple really:
If you don’t win silverware at Manchester United the season is considered by many to be a failure.
It may not be fair, but it was never going to be fair for anyone following the greatest manager of all time. Moyes and Van Gaal both fell short and provided some truly embarrassing moments for the club. If José wants to avoid the same fate he must hold his squad to higher expectations.
In the context of the previous 4 seasons 2nd place in a vast improvement, but in the context of the money being spent and the names in the starting 11 this team are bigger underachievers than Tottenham. Lukaku, Pogba, Alexis, Martial, De Gea. The team has star calibre, and they’ve continued to bring in more, but if Mourinho continues to go out and say “It’s not enough,” the players will themselves believe they aren’t enough.
When a manager plays mind games or rants to the media it will always be a risk as to how it is taken by the fans, but when José isn’t willing to accept responsibility for tactical failures and poor performances in important games it is absolutely maddening. He hasn’t lost the dressing room or the fans yet, but it’s starting to happen. Everyone wants Mourinho to succeed. No one is out to get him at the club. Everyone simply wants results.
United have made enormous strides from the days of 0-0 draws and battles for 4th. United were able to maintain their position in second place since City broke away from the pack, and there is no longer a fear of missing out on Champions League football.
United have found stability.
If José isn’t careful he will lose control of the rebuilding project before the club’s true potential is realized. He has a history of starting strong and leaving a team in trouble rather than the other way around. Right now United need him to be the man for the future, something that is new to him, but he has the resources and team to pull it off. It’s time to push for silverware, and do so without alienating the quality players he already has. Chief Executive Ed Woodward mustn’t be forced to choose between a manager and the players, because Mourinho will almost certainly lose. The fans simply won’t support him anymore.