Last season was a disappointing one for a Manchester United team with such high expectations. Although there was the FA Cup trophy, a very expensively assembled side never truly threatened for a title (this in a season where most traditional powerhouses struggled), and finished fifth, missing out on the UEFA Champions League through goal difference.
Defensively, the side conceded only 35 times, tied with Tottenham for the best record in the Premier League, but offensively they were the lowest scorers in the top eight. Predictably, the board responded to last season by splashing the cash on a new manager and several new attacking threats, and are amongst the bookmakers’ favourites to challenge for the title this season.
The only defender bought thus far is 22 year old center back Eric Bailly for £6.8m. Small change compared to the £35.7m spent on Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the huge wages on 35 year old Zlatan Ibrahimović. Not to mention the impending arrival of Paul Pogba for £93m.
On the face of it, it appears that Manchester United are addressing their problems in front of goal while hoping the arrival of Jose Mourinho sees them keep the defensive solidity that characterised Louis Van Gaal’s reign. However, another way to look at the summer thus far is that a lot of resources have been spent on a few vanity players, without truly changing the side for the better.
Last season’s defensive prowess wasn’t because Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were superb defenders, it was a complete team effort. Van Gaal’s side made a conscious decision to hold on to the ball as much as possible, eschewing risk. If your opponent does not have the ball, they cannot score. Similarly, if the whole team is massed behind the ball because they are threatened by United’s probing, then they cannot get behind quickly.
Now United have brought in three players who are not used to playing like that. Ibrahimović is a supremely individual player, who wants to be the focal point of a team’s strategy. Mkhitaryan was used to frenetic pressing at Borussia Dortmund, and Paul Pogba was one of the key players involved in Juventus’ heavy pressing game first established under Conte. They are three very physical players, who want to get at the opposition with thrusting runs and direct passing, risk-takers who do not fit in the mould of last season’s United side.
The obvious hope of higher-ups at Manchester United must be that bringing in Jose Mourinho will cause a style revolution. The summer signings would not fit in last season’s side, but this side must not play in the same way as last season’s side. Furthermore, Mourinho’s strength of personality should prevent the discord within the ranks that Van Gaal had to deal with often last season.
It is difficult to expect that Mourinho can come in and alter a project that Van Gaal built for the past two seasons straight away. Especially with only one preseason under his belt.
Perhaps Mourinho wants to turn Manchester United into a more muscular, physical team. But it may have been wiser to buy several players who could help adapt United to that style rather than two hyper-expensive ones that may have to adapt before they can flourish.
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