If any set of fixtures describes the farce at Manchester United over the last three years then the Reds’ games against Bournemouth last season could sum it up. United arrived on the South Coast last December needing three points to top the Premier League. Instead, Louis van Gaal’s side was undone by a series of comical errors, resulting in a 2-1 defeat and with it slipped down to fifth place. United never recovered. New manager José Mourinho cannot contemplate a repeat as the Reds visit Bournemouth of the opening day of the new campaign.
Bournemouth’s first goal at Dean Court came two minutes into the game, and directly from a corner. The second was another corner that United allowed to roll all the way across the box for former Red Joshua King converted. Even United’s equaliser was typically comical, with Marouane Fellaini fumbling his way through Bournemouth’s defence like a disoriented baby elephant. It was embarrassing for United and Van Gaal who remained adamant his side were title challengers.
Forward to May and Van Gaal’s side was due to play The Cherries in the season’s final fixture, needing a win to retain an outside shot at the Champions League. Instead, Old Trafford was evacuated due to a suspicious package and the game was cancelled. When details emerged that the package was left after a training exercise the club was left with egg on its face, and although the Reds won the rearranged fixture, Manchester City had already secured three points and there would be no Champions League football at Old Trafford.
Each fixture highlighted United’s perceived incompetence on and off the pitch since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. The club has fumbled its way through three seasons, reaching only a marginally better position after Van Gaal’s era than when David Moyes was sacked, despite a transfer market spend approaching £300 million. At the same time United fans have been incredibly patient, despite witnessing their side embarrassed on a regular basis.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Last week’s Community Shield victory over champions Leicester City gave little away in terms of Mourinho’s approach to the season. There were moments of Van Gaal’s philosophy in evidence, although the freedom afforded United’s forward line was also clear.[/blockquote]
Yet, there is now a renewed sense of optimism creeping back. Mourinho has arrived at United as the club’s third manager in the last three years, but he has wasted no time in restoring hope, replacing feelings of embarrassment with a sense of excitement.
Mourinho’s record speaks for itself, while the club has done well in the transfer market this summer to capture four mercurial talents who will improve the team on the field not just on paper. Like his new club, the Portuguese manager has something to prove after last season’s sacking at Chelsea.
Mourinho has been typically bullish though, making the valid point that his last title was only a year ago. Yet, the manager knows the spotlight is on him this season. Neither Mourinho nor United can afford to get it wrong this time.
Meanwhile, Bournemouth begins a second season in the Premier League after finishing a respectable 16th last season, five points clear of the relegation zone. Eddie Howe has strengthened well, adding record signing Jordan Ibe from Liverpool, and welcoming back star striker Callum Wilson from injury. The talented Howe, who was recently linked with the England job, is a devotee of creative football, with a philosophy that allows players to express themselves.
Still, with competition increasing in the Premier League Bournemouth faces another relegation battle this season, a challenge that Howe recognises.
“I am expecting it to be harder than last season,” Howe said. “I think the quality of the league has gone up when you look at the quality of the managers that have come in, the players that have been attracted to the league and the money that has been spent.
“I think we have improved, but I think everyone else will have at the same time, so the challenge is going to be tougher, and we need to make sure we respond.”
Howe’s comments are stark at a time when many coaches daren’t appear unambitious. Yet, while Sunday’s opponents are braced for a relegation battle, Mourinho is eyeing a bigger prize.
“We think that we are candidates to the win the title,” Mourinho said. “Many more think the same as us but they are afraid to say it. They prefer to play a defensive game with words. I think Manchester United has to say we want to win the title. At the end of the season if we are not champions because someone is better than us then great, that’s football.”
Like Howe, Mourinho’s comments are refreshing, with United fans growing increasingly frustrated with Van Gaal’s repeated attempts to reduce expectations.
Team news and line-ups
Bournmouth subs from: Allsop, Federici, Gosling, Ake, Afobe, Gradel, King, Fraser, Wiggins, Hyndman
United subs from: Romero, Rojo, Jones, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Schneiderlin, Young, Mata, Mkhitaryan, Memphis, Rashford
Last week’s Community Shield victory over champions Leicester City gave little away in terms of Mourinho’s approach to the season. There were moments of Van Gaal’s philosophy in evidence, although the freedom afforded United’s forward line was also clear, with players interchanging positions at will.
At the back, Mourinho is unlikely to change last week’s four, which was largely untroubled by Leicester’s pacey attack. Antonio Valencia continues at right-back after contributing another assist for last week’s winning goal. Valencia’s defensive mind-set is a concern though and few will be surprised if Tim Fosu-Mensah comes into the team as season progresses.
Eric Bailly made an excellent impression on his competitive début for United, keeping Jamie Vardy quiet for most of the match. Bailly’s potential is clear although he also remains raw, picking up a yellow for a rash challenge on the England striker. Bailly will be partnered by Daley Blind, with Chris Smalling suspended, while Luke Shaw is a welcome return at left-back and is unlikely to be challenged in that position this season.
Eric Bailly: raw talent
In midfield Marounane Fellaini, who was at fault for Leicester’s equaliser at Wembley, could be dropped, despite Mourinho defending the Belgian in post-match interviews. World record signing Paul Pogba is suspended, although was unlikely to play due to a lack of match fitness, meaning Ander Herrera comes into the team.
Michael Carrick partners the Spaniard in midfield after seemingly fending off Morgan Schneiderlin for a midfield role, while Wayne Rooney starts at 10, despite a very poor performance at Wembley. The Rooney conundrum is one that will increasingly trouble Mourinho now Pogba has arrived. Logic suggests that Rooney will be dropped and United will switch to a 4-3-3 unless the skipper’s performances improve significantly.
Jesse Lingard retains his place on the right after scoring a stunning solo goal last weekend. The Englishman was given the nod over Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Wembley, although expect the Armenian to replace Lingard as the regular starter as the season progresses. On the other wing Anthony Martial is looking to pick up from where he left off last season. Despite the summer arrivals, the Frenchman remains United’s greatest attacking threat.
Meanwhile, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is fresh from scoring the winner at Wembley. The Swede was largely anonymous, but delivered when it mattered, out muscling Wes Morgan for the 89th minute winner. Ibrahimovic has divided opinion with a late career move to Manchester, but should consider 15 goals league to be a realistic target this season.
If Mourinho’s side was a little muted last week, then it’s hard to foretell whether a rampant United will put out a statement on Sunday, or a set up to ‘get the job done’. Expect to see a performances of both kinds throughout the season.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Beck, S Ledger
Fourth Official: R East
Bournemouth 0-2 United