As the excitement of Jose Mourinho’s arrival began to fade reality set in that even the ‘Special One’ could not fill the boots of the great Sir Alex Ferguson. In reality the majority of the footballing world knew this. David Moyes came and went in what seemed like a millisecond and Louis Van Gaal struggled to find success in Manchester during his 2 years at the helm. Now United have their man. A campaign down the line we are left to reflect on a season that has been strong in certain areas but flaws can be found in equal quantities.
Ex Man United captain Roy Keane did not hold back when he spoke before the reds took on Celta Vigo in the Europa League semi-final second leg at the Theatre of Dreams. At the time he said that there were no excuses for a club like United not to win the competition given the other sides competing for the prize. He continued to inform the television audience that Mourinho could not reflect on his debut season as a success even though he had won a trophy and was likely to be in a European final. According the Republic of Ireland legend Jose is just making excuses to deflect attention away from the league performance. He maintained that the team and boss should be embarrassed about a sixth place finish.
Keane left Old Trafford back in 2005 after an argument with then manager Ferguson. Then 34, he left by mutual consent after he criticised the Manchester club following a 4-1 loss to Middlesbrough. Back then expectation of United were high. Ferguson was at the height of his powers and United were a feared team after years of dominance in England.
Jose inherited squad considerably different from the one Keane left. A lot had changed in the 11 years since Keane’s own actions ended his glittering career at United. Van Gaal lead them to FA cup success before Jose took over but the squad needed improvement. Therefore reflection on this season must start with how well the red side of Manchester recruited in the summer. The obvious addition to note was Paul Pogba who was signed for a world record fee. His season was to be as expected. A period of settling in, improvement and adjustment to his new tag as the worlds most expensive player would be needed. The other flagship signing was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who went on to be the top scorer at the club. Eric Bailly has settled well and looks as if he will have a new defence built around him. The only other signing was Henrikh Mkhitaryan who has been good in patches but injuries have hindered his progress. All of Jose’s signings have adapted well to life in Manchester and had phases in the season where they have helped the team succeed. You would have to count his recruitment as a plus.
Speaking in terms of league success you have to side with Keane. The Red Devils have underachieved in their league campaign. Sixth place would have seen them miss out on Champions League football again if they did not excel in other competitions. United managed eight wins at home this term. To put this into perspective that is the same amount as relegated Hull City and 17th placed Watford. They have scored 26 goals at Old Trafford this season which doubled by champions Chelsea tally of 55 in 19 home games. Draws have killed United’s push for the top four this year coming against teams such as Burnley, Hull and Bournemouth – no disrespect to these sides but United would feel these all games should be won.
The domestic cup campaign has been slightly better. A good run in the FA cup saw them reach the last eight. United could have made it deeper into the competition but Ander Herrera was sent off in the game against Chelsea in which Jose implemented the tactics that saw them beat Chelsea at Old Trafford later in the season. In the League Cup they were successful. An exciting game at Wembley against Southampton saw Ibrahimovic score the winner. While Keane argues that the League Cup is not a trophy that should be celebrated intensely the fact remains it is a trophy won. This breads a mentality of winning and success which United must regain if they want to be half as imposing as they once were. Another success in the League Cup campaign was overcoming fierce rivals Manchester City and Pep Guardiola on route to lifting the trophy.
Then there was the venture into Europe. Jose had no control over which competition Man United would take part in this season. Old comments of the relevance and importance of the trophy seem obsolete. There has to be some kind of context attributed to his comments made. Mourinho had come in to Chelsea after Rafa Benitez had won the Europa League the year before. Now Chelsea were competing in the Champions League and it is quite clear that the comment was an attempt at focusing the squads minds on competing in the biggest of European competitions. If you now look at the situation at United it becomes clear that the Europa League in this set of circumstances was far more important. As it turned out it was vital to United achieving one of their goals in reaching the Champions League next season. The classy performance against a young and energetic Ajax side put them straight into the group stages next year. Will they need to improve to be competitive in this competition? Yes, certainly. The boost in morale it will bring the squad reaching the Champions League will be intrinsic to success moving forward as will the fact they lifted the only major trophy the club had previously not won.
It was always going to be a hard season for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. However, it is clear that the positives outweigh the negatives. A terrible league campaign is a massive concern but being competitive on all other fronts has to be a success. The future is bright under Mourinho. He is one of the very few managers in world football who has the ability to resurrect Manchester United back to the success they experienced in Keane’s heyday.