Jose Mourinho has restored a fear factor at Old Trafford as Manchester United manager, a welcome return following the uncertainty and unfamiliarity that pervaded the reigns of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal.
The Red Devils placing of 6th at the half-way point of the season is both partially reflective of the apprehensive nature of Mourinho’s start as United boss and the overall competitiveness of the top six sides. United have won six league games in a row and are undefeated since October, three points removed from the top four.
So what to make of Mourinho’s time as manager thus far? What is for certain is the eagerness of the media to assume Mourinho was ‘struggling’ as United boss in the early goings, particularly after their most vulnerable moment of the campaign: a 4-0 drubbing to Mourinho’s former side Chelsea. ‘The Special One’ has proven to the contrary of the media’s early analysis, firing Manchester United right back into touching distance of the top four and potential dark horses to win the league. Sure, 10 points is a sizeable gap, but stranger things have happened in the English Premier League.
Transfers – In
We start with the free transfer of Sweden’s recently retired international Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A name that needs no introduction, Zlatan helped United to a trophy in his first appearance for the club: scoring a towering header in a 2-1 win over Leicester for the Community Shield. He will aim for bigger and better achievements in his time at the club, one of which could be the Golden Boot, as Zlatan trails Chelsea’s Diego Costa by just one goal and has 18 from 28 outings in all competitions.
Next up is the much-anticipated return of Paul Pogba. The Frenchman made a name for himself in Italy with perennial domestic champions Juventus before warranting the world’s highest transfer fee at £90 million. After a mixed start to his second spell at United, and one that largely summed up the first few months of their season, Pogba has begun to show off his fearless and masterful style of play. He will surely become one of the best midfielders in the league, if not the world, in the next few seasons.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly round out a purposeful transfer window for United, one that prioritised strengthening the spine of the side. The former Dortmund man took his time to break into proceedings, debuting in a disappointing fashion in the 2-1 Manchester Derby loss, but has since rectified himself with a winner against Tottenham and one of the goals of the season against Sunderland.
As for Bailly, the Ivorian took to his role at Manchester United in a swifter fashion, slotting in assuredly alongside Chris Smalling at centre-half. A physically imposing and quick defender, if somewhat overly robust at times, Bailly looks set to be a fixture in Mourinho’s United squad for years to come.
Transfers – Out
Other than the loan of Adnan Januzaj to Sunderland, Manchester United did not let any first-team contenders leave the squad. Will Keane departed for Hull City and Paddy McNair to Sunderland, while Victor Valdes left on a free transfer, ultimately signing for Middlesbrough.
Transfer Grade: B
There are several reasons why United’s transfer window wasn’t viewed as completely positive. The situation surrounding Bastian Schweinsteiger brought the club into disrepute, while Morgan Schneiderlin hasn’t fared much better. At least in the case of the former, differences appear to have been patched up with the German playing a part in cup fixtures, while Schneiderlin’s exit impends.
Paul Pogba’s arrival strengthens the team, no question, but the price tag added a level of stigma that almost actualised in the early goings. Zlatan is a legendary striker, but will his guaranteed starting role hinder or help the development of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford going forward?
The hesitance to introduce Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the squad was peculiar by the Portuguese manager and drew further unwanted criticism. Ultimately, the Armenian produced and Mourinho proved shrewd, as always. Perhaps it was the transfers that he didn’t make (letting Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin go) that make the summer window worth only a B.
Most Improved Player – Marcos Rojo
In regards to Marcos Rojo, the words ‘surplus to requirements’ come to mind when the announcement was made that Jose Mourinho had become Manchester United’s new manager. Instead, the Argentine has proven that he is more than just a covering option at either centre-half or left full-back. Rojo has formed a formidable partnership with Phil Jones (also a strong contender for this spot) that has deputised in the absence of Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly. The two have played alongside each other in nine of United’s last 10 in the league, winning six and drawing three. He must be careful with those double-footed lunges, though, which he has gotten away with on a few occasions.
Moment of the Season – Rashford vs. Hull
Perhaps not the most glamourous goal or biggest triumph considering the difficulty of the opposition, but no United fan can deny that Rashford’s last minute winner away to Hull was a flashback to some of the best moments of Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden reign as Manchester United manager. Add that to the goal scorer being a heavily fancied youth product with the world seemingly in awe of his every move and you have the first golden moment of the Mourinho era and possibly the first sign of better things to come.
Moment to Forget – vs. Chelsea
For all the positivity and momentum the club have built in recent weeks, the 4-0 humiliation from Chelsea might be remembered as the darkest hour in the recent history of Manchester United. Mourinho was quick to apologize for one of the more forgettable moments of his entire managerial career, but perhaps it was the wake-up call he and his players needed; United have gone undefeated in the following 11 Premier League games.
Goal of the Season – Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs. Sunderland
Is there anything that comes close to this? Mkhitaryan forced Old Trafford to extend their jaws to the ground and keep them there after a diving ‘Scorpion Kick’ effort; one of the best goals you are likely to see all season (until Olivier Giroud did his best impression, and a worthy one at that). Albeit the Armenian was offside when Ibrahimovic played in the cross, but maybe just for a goal this good, this audacious and spectacular, the rule can add an exception.
Overall Grade: B+
The Chelsea result, overall early form, Mkhitaryan’s delayed introduction and controversy surrounding Bastian Schweinsteiger’s role at the club means United cannot sum up the first half of 2016-17 with anything more than a B+. What Mourinho has done to rectify each of the said situations has gone a long way to convincing many that success is just around the corner at Manchester United.
What form will that success take this season? The Europa League, FA Cup and/or League Cup will do nothing to placate fans who want a return to Champions League football and contention for the Premier League title. United’s title chances are slim but not impossible this season and acknowledging that youthful stars such as Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will only get better going forward makes them threatening heading into next season.
Mourinho is all but clear-cut on his preferred XI with his new club, which has gone a long way to the form they find themselves in now. Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera have hardly put a foot wrong all season while the likes of Michael Carrick and Phil Jones have been hard to take out of the side once utilised. In David De Gea, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United have arguably three of the strongest players down the middle of any side throughout the competition.