Guardian writers’ predicted position: Champions (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Wilson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 5th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 3-1
Last season ought to have proved conclusively that José Mourinho is not in fact all that special, whether making a costly mistake in monstering his blameless medical staff or managing to lose nine matches before losing his job in December, but try telling that to Manchester United supporters at the moment.
The Special One being at the Special Club at long last is the gist of their enthusiasm for the forthcoming season, and though one would not normally go out of one’s way to pardon the excesses of United supporters, after the thin diet of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal years it is easy to see where they are coming from.
Mourinho, it is commonly thought, ought to have had the United job the moment Sir Alex Ferguson stood down. For a variety of reasons too uninteresting to warrant repeating here that did not happen, though now the olive branch has been offered and the damage is being repaired it feels as though the club’s wilderness years have come to an abrupt end. In the fullness of time, the last three seasons may come to be viewed as an interregnum, an interim period, a curious quirk of the history books. Lost years perhaps, but three seasons is a relatively small price to pay for a botched succession, as United know only too well. The last time a hugely successful and popular manager had to hand over the running of the club the collateral damage involved relegation, four managers in two years and a quarter of a century without a title.
United, it is true, have now had four managers in a little over the last three seasons, but while that sits uneasily with a club proud of having the same one for an astonishing 27 years, all will be quickly forgotten if Mourinho is as good as everyone hopes. He has certainly started as if he means to means to draw a firm line under past events, even if he has been unnecessarily brusque with Bastian Schweinsteiger. He has made a crowd-pleasing signing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a necessary one in Eric Bailly and a sensible one in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, though the real statement capture looks set to be Paul Pogba for a new transfer record. Such a prominent performer at the peak of his powers would never have looked at United while Moyes was in charge, and only partly for the reason that he had only just left. Van Gaal would also have been wasting his time trying to get the United board to sanction outlay of around £100m on a player who had been allowed to move out for next to nothing, especially with the amounts which will reportedly go straight to an agent. If Mourinho fails with Pogba he will fail big, but in all likelihood he will not fail. Pogba would go straight into virtually any team in Europe and, though the sums are eye-watering, Mourinho is simply positioning United where he and their supporters believe they belong, at the front of the queue for such talents whatever the price and the circumstances.
Owners perceived as cautious if not downright penny-pinching just a few seasons ago have now been persuaded to become cavalier again, presumably because they have recently acquired a first-hand insight into how on-the-cheap ordinariness damages the product. Manchester United cannot afford to be ordinary, which is why Moyes and Van Gaal can be viewed only as mistakes. They will not be ordinary under Mourinho, however long he lasts. They will not be setting any new records for scoreless first halves or, even worse, attempting to justify such banal displays. They will not be talking in terms of transition or three-year plans. Mourinho’s normal preference is to hit the ground running and this season, with no involvement in the Champions League, looks as good an opportunity as any to remind Leicester City where the title really belongs.
Perhaps that is looking too far ahead, for all Mourinho has done so far is to win friends and take up an aggressive stance in the phoney war of the close season. Chelsea’s woeful title defence exists to prove how spectacularly things can go wrong and how quickly, but first impressions are still important. While United fans are undoubtedly happier than they have been for years, the real thing starts next week and only when the new manager’s plans take shape on the pitch can he be properly judged. What Mourinho would normally do when taking over a new club is strengthen and drill the defence, a process he has already begun with the acquisition of Bailly, though in fact the United defence was one of the few bright points of last season. It was the joint-meanest in the division, with 35 goals conceded, the same number as Spurs.
The problem, and an area in which Van Gaal will be judged harshly even against the standard set in Moyes’ troubled season, was in scoring goals. United finished with 49, the only time in the Premier League era that they have failed to register a half-century, and a feat managed only four times previously in post-war seasons. Twice just before relegation in 1974, which might be expected, and twice in Ferguson’s early years, which comes as a slight surprise.
Mourinho is not known for his commitment to attacking football – it was one of the reasons some at United were resistant to his appointment – but he does have a commitment to winning games and he can barely fail to improve on the sterility of the past couple of seasons. To give Van Gaal some credit, he eventually bequeathed a tidy attacking line from which to choose. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford enjoyed encouraging breakthrough seasons last time and it would be a pity if the development of either came to be halted through the necessity of playing Ibrahimovic, say, who at the age of 34 will not be expecting a long career at Old Trafford and will be hoping to maximise his impact at what is likely to be his last big club.
Then there is Wayne Rooney, who has been told he will be deployed as a striker – Van Gaal began with that idea too – despite a meagre return of eight league goals last season. Granted it is hard to keep hitting double figures from midfield, but if Mourinho restores Rooney to the nine or 10 position, plays Ibrahimovic and has Mkhitaryan coming in off one of the flanks, then opportunities for either or both of Martial and Rashford are likely to be limited. Mourinho has presumably promised Ibrahimovic games, and has gone public with his pledge to play Rooney up front, yet both those players are in their thirties. It would be harsh to suggest Ibrahimovic has been diminished by age – there seems plenty left in him yet – though opinion has been divided about Rooney’s contribution, both at club and international level, for several years now. The conundrum for Mourinho to sort out is that whereas his front two undoubtedly have pedigree, panache and no small amount of finishing prowess, Martial and Rashford clearly have the edge when it comes to pace and quick movement.
The other big decision United have to make is over their attitude to the Europa League. A manager who has won Champions League finals with clubs from two countries and retains an interest in making history if he can make it three is unlikely to be that interested in Uefa’s lesser bauble, though a club of United’s stature can hardly oil out of it when the first chance arises. European experience is useful for the development of younger players in any case; Rashford might not have got his break last season but for United being scared to death by FC Midtjylland. On the other hand, were Mourinho in a position to devote all his energy and resources into winning the league in his first season, much as Claudio Ranieri did at Leicester, the United side he is putting together would appear to have an outstanding chance.
Though everyone will be expecting Mourinho to renew his rivalry with Pep Guardiola and regard Manchester City as the main danger this season, there is every possibility he will be keeping a close eye on Liverpool, where Jürgen Klopp has brought in a few players, is ready for his first full season in England and has no European distractions. Even Leicester will be struggling with Champions League overload this time, so there is a real possibility, given what happened last season, that a leading team without European commitments could get ahead in the league.
The odds are that the title will return to the north-west this season – ask any bookmaker. But there are three teams in the race, not two, and a streamlined fixture list could be key. Although Mourinho’s ostensible target may just be to return United to the Champions League, something Van Gaal could not manage, there is clearly a more stylish way of doing that than simply aiming for third or fourth place and falling short. Never mind the last three years, they are fading memories already. This season United will be resuming their designs on the title.
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