Guardian writers’ predicted position 3rd (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 6th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 10-3
In 2017-18 Manchester United have to be true contenders for the Premier League title. This is the minimum demand and undeniable truth facing José Mourinho as he embarks on a second campaign leading the record 20-times champions.
Given the Portuguese’s backing in the transfer market, he has no excuses if they are not challengers. Last summer Mourinho acquired Paul Pogba for a then world record of £89m and followed that up this summer by buying Romelu Lukaku for £75m from Everton, a record between two British clubs, the central defender Victor Lindelof (£31m) and last week the midfielder Nemanja Matic (£40m).
Factor in Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£30m) and Eric Bailly (£30m), who were also bought 12 months ago, and it is a £295m investment made by the Glazers, who own United. If Ivan Perisic or the AN Other forward Mourinho wants to complete his trading is recruited (for a minimum £45m), it will be close to £350m he has spent since taking charge.
Despite finishing in a lowly sixth place in the Premier League, last season was still a success. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring 28 times in all competitions before a serious knee injury, Mourinho guided United to the EFL Cup and the Europa League. This last trophy completed United’s set of major honours and came with the precious prize of a Champions League place.
As the Europa League triumph left his men battle-hardened, Mourinho should set par performance in the continent’s elite club tournament at the quarter-finals, then back his managerial ability to see how much further he can take them. But it is the Premier League where the manager really believes his side can prosper. In Georgetown, Washington DC, before the final training session of the tour of the United States, Mourinho named Tottenham Hotspur as major favourites for the title while ranking United as having a fighting chance.
Do not be fooled. Mourinho’s team is not perfect but has been built primarily for domestic competition. It is big and strong, a powerhouse outfit the manager will instruct to try and bully most opponents.
A scan through his probable first XI illustrates this and points to weaknesses at left-back, No10, and in a wide attacking berth. The last two issues could be eased in a single acquisition if Mourinho obtains Perisic from Internazionale. Do that then United’s best side might read: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones/Lindelof, Blind/Darmian; Pogba, Matic; Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Perisic; Lukaku.
This 4-2-3-1 has no room for Ander Herrera so in a 4-3-3 to accommodate the Spaniard, Mkhitaryan would miss out and Perisic would play one side of Lukaku with Marcus Rashford the other. Mourinho also fielded a three centre-backs on tour and sees this as an option rather than a regular system for the coming campaign.
Whichever way he goes, a formidable unit can be fielded on any match-day that would contain only a couple of players Mourinho has inherited and is lukewarm about – the centre-back Phil Jones and Daley Blind or Matteo Darmian, the potential left-backs.
His goalkeeper, De Gea, has a definite case for being the best in the world and of Antonio Valencia Mourinho says: “There is no better right-back in football.” Bailly has convinced he should be first-choice and not just a player with potential. Matic was an integral part of Mourinho’s last Chelsea title-winning team of 2014-15, Pogba is the Portuguese’s on-field personification, and of the front four of Lukaku, Rashford, Perisic and Mkhitaryan, only the last causes doubt.
On Tuesday night in Skopje, United take on Real Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup final. After United were given a 1-0 schooling by Barcelona in their final outing in the States, Mourinho was open about the Catalan club and Real being on a different level to his side. The manager stated it is up to him to stymie the two Spanish giants with clever strategy. The encounter at the Philip II Arena in the Macedonian capital is a chance for Mourinho to do so but a more sure-fire way of achieving this is by beefing up recruitment. This should be straightforward but requires United to be more bullish. They must utilise the financial heft that was underlined by the £750m earned from the Adidas kit deal alone, plus Pogba’s presence as a statement of what United are building, to make a muscular move in the closing weeks of the transfer window.
If the ambition is to be the dominant Premier League force again and disrupt the Real-Barça-Bayern Munich continental hegemony, United need to target a player who would instantly improve them after scoring 18 Premier League goals last year, who is only 21, and has the requisite edge to perform at Old Trafford: Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli.
The major obstacles here are first, that Tottenham consider themselves rivals, and second, the supposed negotiating acumen of their chairman, Daniel Levy. If United were to offer, say, £120m – or 18 months of the Adidas cash – for Alli, then Levy would have to listen. In an instant the received wisdom he drives a near-impossible bargain would be blown away.
Only last week Mauricio Pochettino conceded the point. “The problem is so clear. We are not a club today that can compete with Manchester United and City for a player. We cannot fight,” the Spurs manager said. The subtext is that the reverse is also true. Tottenham could not resist if United made a British record offer for Alli.
It probably will not happen and if so a question should be asked: what is United’s true ambition if they are not prepared to ruffle a competitor’s feathers by trying this kind of move? In June Forbes rated the club the “world’s most valuable soccer team” worth $3.69bn (£2.79bn). What is the point of these riches if Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, cannot call Levy and say, in effect, name your price? And if the bid did fail, United would still have reset the parameters of how Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool should view them in future windows.
For now, though, the coming campaign will be a first in 13 years without Wayne Rooney, who has departed for Everton. As he was a fading force United will not mourn the record goalscorer. Yet what upsets supporters is the lack of a title since 2013. That was claimed by Sir Alex Ferguson. The challenge for the Scot’s third successor is to land the big one again.
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