Rebuilding a fallen empire: Mourinho’s greatest challenge
Once the curtain came down on David Moyes’ reign as Manchester United manager, it was clear that the Reds required a major overhaul to bring stability back to the club. Following the inevitable reshaping of the squad and the backroom staff under Louis Van Gaal, it seems that the club is in need of major surgery once again. The Dutchman has failed to end the malaise surrounding United’s fortunes. The higher-ups have some key decisions to make this summer.
The managerial situation was the most pressing issue on Ed Woodward’s in-box this summer. Van Gaal appeared to be a safe bet, mixing an experienced hand with exuberant statements in the media. From targeting a first place finish to drinking wine with the press, the Dutchman captivated audiences with his eccentric behavior. Two years on and the eccentricities remained, but the charm has long since worn off. Forget the title, by the end United barely resembled a side proficient enough to touch the tablecloth it lay upon – a drought of goals, pointless spells of possession and a complete lack of potency in attack.
Van Gaal oversaw just 49 goals this season – United’s lowest total in the past 26 years. Adding further salt to Mancunian wounds, it took United the final game of the season to outscore 17th–placed Sunderland. Van Gaal seemed oblivious to the state of his side, excuses becoming the only consistent aspect of his spell in Manchester. With the spectre of José Mourinho looming large over the past few months, Woodward has finally appeased fans by sacking the Dutchman and bringing in former Chelsea manager.
Injuries certainly left United exposed under Van Gaal, with Luke Shaw’s leg-break the most notable hole. None of the players who deputized for the Englishman did so consistently well. Van Gaal is not to blame for all of it, yet both Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo were his acquisitions. Rojo has never looked comfortable in a United shirt and the Argentine’s clumsy play rarely instills confidence. Given the runaround by too many wingers, it’s hard to understand what Van Gaal and his staff saw in the error-prone Sporting Lisbon man.
On the other flank, Timothy Fosu-Mensah highlighted Rojo’s ineptitude with performances his peer has rarely displayed. That should be the final nail in the Argentine’s blundering Old Trafford career, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson showed rare maturity at left-back.
Darmian slotted seamlessly into the United side and the former Torino man was hugely impressive in his first few months at the club. It didn’t last and the Italian’s form fell off a cliff after November. Similarly, Memphis Depay was an ideal United player on paper, but he too suffered a mid-season dip and has struggled to recover form. Van Gaal, for all his experience, did little to rebuild his players’ confidence.
In particular Memphis has rarely played in recent months despite impressing in the wins against Arsenal and Midtyland. The Dutchman’s bit-part role reminds many fans of the broken relationship between Van Gaal and Angel Di Maria. The dynamic Argentinian departed after a single season at Old Trafford, and there remains a strong possibility that others will follow suit this summer.
Mourinho needs to make quick decisions on the future of fringe players such as Adnan Januzaj and Andreas Pereira before pursuing yet another attacking acquisition. The pair has talent, but can Mourinho coax out the best in them when Van Gaal could not. While Mourinho has a poor reputation for youth, he has uncovered some gems such as Raphaël Varane and Davide Santon at Real Madrid and Inter respectively.
While some players have failed spectacularly under Van Gaal, others such as Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have enjoyed a renaissance. The Dutchman’s trust in utility players led to United boasting one of their smallest squads in Premier League history, with Van Gaal deliberately shaping his team around multifaceted players.
Daley Blind, in particular, has been transformed into a reliable option at centre back. His partnership with Chris Smalling was one of United’s rare positives this season, with the two ensuring United conceding only 35 goals in the Premier League, the joint-fewest along with Tottenham Hotspur. The former Ajax man is susceptible to pace and his marking is not always at the highest level. Mourinho is likely to bring in an experienced central defender, along with another full-back.
The aforementioned Varane and John Stones are reportedly Mourinho’s preferred targets, however the task of prizing either is likely to be difficult and expensive. The mix of youth and experience makes either an ideal candidate to compliment the Reds’ defence alongside Smalling next season.
Another department that requires reinforcements is in attack. Van Gaal took a bold gamble by limiting his striking options to Wayne Rooney and the relatively unknown Anthony Martial this season. Martial was a revelation, netting 17 goals for United, as the club’s leading scorer. While the Frenchman was primarily deployed as a winger, the emergence of Marcus Rashford could become Van Gaal’s defining legacy at United. The Wythenshawe native was trusted to lead the line, with only briefly enjoying a hot spell. It would represent another huge gamble to rely on Rashford alone in the coming season – his precocious talent needs to be protected to ensure the Englishman doesn’t burn.
So to reports in L’Equipe among others that Zlatan Ibrahimović will be Mourinho’s first signing at Old Trafford. The prolific striker brings huge amounts of experience, along with a charismatic aura that this United side is sorely lacking. Just like his former manager, Ibrahimović is a serial trophy winner. The Swede’s addition will be welcomed by a fans that miss the sight of truly world-class players at Old Trafford.
There is a note of caution though. Another great, Bastian Schweinsteiger, suffered a disappointing season at United, with the veteran German being injured for large parts of the campaign. When fit, he looked off the pace. Similarly, Ibrahimović could struggle in the more rigorous nature of English Football, and in turning 35 this year his accession represents a sizeable gamble. With reports of senior players angry at Van Gaal’s preferential treatment of Schweinsteiger, Mourinho should be wary not to fall into a similar trap if Ibrahimović arrives.
Either way, it is likely to be another summer of change – the only constant after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. After 26 years of stability under the Scot United scoffed at the idea of hiring managers with the notion of ‘short-term success’. Lasting legacies and a long-term view were the cornerstones of a club that witnessed significant changes at rivals every summer.
We now know that Ferguson was an anomaly in an environment where stability is as rare as Leicester City winning the league. In the three years since the legendary Scot hung up his coat, Moyes and Van Gaal failed to provide instant results or successfully build on Ferguson’s blueprint. United has gradually learnt that short-term success is, perhaps, the only viable success in today’s era. It won’t take long to ascertain whether the latest rebuild will finally bring a semblance of stability to the club.