Jose Mourinho starts his second season at Manchester United this weekend with the expectation that he brings the Premier League trophy back to Old Trafford. That’s what Mourinho is famed for – creating champions in year two.
In the three seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson departed, United were left to decay. David Moyes was a man totally out of his depth and inflicted long-lasting damage on the club. Louis van Gaal claimed United’s first FA Cup for 12 years but in doing so, stifled the players and bored the fans to tears.
Mourinho had a tough job on his hands when he was eventually appointed – three years too late according to many United fans – so a return of two trophies and Champions League qualification isn’t bad. You don’t need to ask the supporters at Wembley and Stockholm whether they would trade the EFL Cup and Europa League finals to finish higher in the table, and potless.
These trophies may historically fall lower on their list of priorities but nobody is in a position to turn their nose up at silverware.
After all, United lifted more trophies last season than Liverpool and Tottenham have combined over the past decade.
The sixth place finish arguably doesn’t give the most accurate representation of United’s squad either, with Mourinho sacrificing league form and results for the trophy he regarded a safer bet for Champions League qualification. The weekend United travelled to Wembley for the EFL Cup final in February they were just two points behind second-placed Spurs.
United had also created more goalscoring chances than any team in the league at this point; a far cry from the dull football that Van Gaal had employed, showing that with a shift of priorities they may well be contenders sooner rather than later.
But Mourinho has missed an early opportunity to claim a piece of silverware after seeing his side beaten in the Super Cup final. Given that Real Madrid are the champions of Spain, Europe and the world, there isn’t much shame in losing 2-1 to them, particularly considering their first goal was offside.
After the game, Mourinho claimed that this was his favourite group of players that he has ever managed, which is quite a statement from the former Chelsea, Inter and Madrid boss.
But will he be saying the same thing at the end of the coming season? And which are the players he will rely upon to bring success?
THE MATIC EFFECT
While many Chelsea fans gave fairly insulting appraisals of Nemanja Matic after he asked to leave for United, which probably shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, the Serbian could be a huge player for Mourinho.
He may not have been at his best, but before the final week of the season, Matic missed just one league game all season, and that was against Manchester City thanks to an injury. Antonio Conte surely wouldn’t be able to play a passenger every week in a title winning team, would he?
Having won two Premier League titles at Chelsea, Matic has the experience of winning allied with an ability to contribute to success in a fairly subtle way. His job is to give the other midfielders the freedom to attack and create, while also protecting the defence behind him.
Given that United’s back four is anything but settled and established, his defensive work will be vital. When you also consider that Paul Pogba, the most expensive player in the league, can now be unshackled to show what he is really capable of, Matic’s signing seems perfect.
Antonio Conte on Nemanja Matic: "Matic knows very well what I think about him – the importance for me about this player." pic.twitter.com/JEiI1GttFN
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) August 9, 2017
Watching him in the Super Cup, there will be plenty of Chelsea fans wondering why their club sold him, especially to a rival. Antonio Conte certainly couldn’t work it out when he was asked ahead of the Community Shield defeat against Arsenal.
The Serbian was everywhere against Real Madrid and also showed off his brilliant passing repertoire, which came as a surprise to some who hadn’t watched him every week. It’s worth remembering that the defensive midfielder had more assists than anyone at United last season. He could be the defining player in the campaign ahead.
Solving the Pogba problem
Another crucial player is the aforementioned Paul Pogba. His weaknesses were highlighted against Madrid, when he missed a tap-in and was occasionally guilty of poor decision-making. Keen to live up to his hype, Pogba tried to score himself rather than set up better placed players.
While superstars can often be fairly selfish in their play, he really needs to cut out his desire to prove how special he is. Too often he holds on to the ball for longer than he should to show off his skill and strength.
But underneath the bravado there’s a huge player for United and someone who should be working to show Mourinho he should wear the captain’s armband, after Michael Carrick presumably retires next summer.
At 24, he’s still young enough to learn, and while the dabbing, dancing and emojis irritate the more traditional fan, it’s irrelevant. What matters is that he shines on the pitch. If he does, United’s aspiration of becoming champions certainly looks more achievable.
Welcome to a big club, Romelu
Finally, the man who United will depend on for goals, Romelu Lukaku. Some argued he was overpriced at £75m and that opinion was confirmed to them when he missed an open goal against Madrid. He atoned for his mistake when scoring in the second half, which will be good for his confidence, but he should have been the star of the show who forced the game to extra-time.
Having never played regularly for a big club, Lukaku will have to deal with the shift in expectation, with goals against good teams not just a bonus, but a must.
After snubbing a return to Chelsea to sign for United, he’s already in the supporters’ good books. His 85 goals and 27 assists over the past five seasons don’t do him any harm either, particularly when compared to former United target and Chelsea’s fallback option, Alvaro Morata, who has managed just 40 goals and 17 assists in the same period of time, despite being older.
— PA Dugout (@PAdugout) August 10, 2017
One criticism levelled at Lukaku is that he doesn’t do the business in the big games, although this seems fairly misguided. Over the past two seasons, despite playing for mid-table Everton, he’s managed goals against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. He did go missing in the FA Cup semi-final against United in 2016 though – not that we were complaining.
While these are the big three, Mourinho will also be looking to Marcus Rashford to score more goals from the wider position he will more regularly occupy, for Anthony Martial to show the form of his debut campaign and put last year behind him, for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to show more than glimpses of magic, for Eric Bailly to stay fit and suspension free to allow him to command from the back, and for Ander Herrera to work his football brain and passion to United’s favour again.
But if Matic, Pogba and Lukaku all play as well as they can, United for the title in Mourinho’s second season would be something you’d be mad to bet against.