A deep dive into the Manchester United 2017/18 squad
The transfer window has now ended with a frantic deadline day which will be remembered more for the deals that weren’t completed than those that were. After big money moves for the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Thomas Lemar, Virgil van Dijk, Ross Barkley and others were mooted, the most significant signing of deadline day was the £40m transfer of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal to rivals Liverpool.
In all of this mayhem, Manchester United were conspicuous by their absence. The least busy person on this most hyped-up, and inevitably anticlimactic of days in the football season, was the Sky reporter charged with keeping an eye out for any news from Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward haven’t had a perfect transfer window but they will have been satisfied with the business they completed and deadline day was likely a relaxed affair for both, despite late links to Riyad Mahrez and Willian.
United famously missed out on their reported number one target in Antoine Griezmann due to the transfer ban imposed on Atletico Madrid but still added intelligently to the squad early on in the window. Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Namanja Matic have joined as new signings and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has re-signed for the club after suffering a serious knee injury towards the end of last season. He was not the fourth signing that Mourinho has frequently mentioned this summer but the squad looks healthy for a number of reasons.
First Team Quality
There is great quality in the core group of players that will make up the first XI through the season. In Paul Pogba and David de Gea, Mourinho has two genuinely elite-level footballers at his disposal. Both are in the top tier of world football in their respective positions and both are at a great age to improve further and stay with the club for a long time. Around them there is an abundance of talent with proven Premier League and European level ability with the potential to join those two in that hypothetical top tier.
In his 12 months or so at the club Mourinho has asked for 8 new players and Ed Woodward has duly obliged by successfully signing 7 of them (and re-signing Zlatan). Importantly, each player has been earmarked to improve the first XI and add genuine quality in areas of need. Mourinho will be pleased with that strike rate and the up-lift in overall quality he has overseen since taking over from Louis van Gaal.
Room for Improvement
Moving from sixth to title challengers looks like a monumental leap on paper but Mourinho will be cautiously confident that his squad can achieve it. When analysing last season, it’s clear that only a few players really played to their potential on a consistent basis. For United fans, it was great that De Gea was not called upon as frequently as in previous seasons but he carried out his work with the usual level of excellence we have all come to expect. Antonio Valencia was transformed into one the best right backs in the league and Ander Herrera had an exceptional season culminating in calls from the fanbase for him to be made the next club captain following the departure of Wayne Rooney. From the new signings, Eric Bailly had an excellent debut season and Zlatan Ibrahimovic confounded his many doubters, myself included, to end the season as the club’s top scorer and driving force towards two trophies.
Aside from that, we did not see the level of consistency needed for players at a top club. Paul Pogba performed excellently for the most part but his consistency was hampered by the various roles he performed, the poor finishing within the team and his own profligacy in front of goal. There is more to come from him and the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata will also need to step up if they want to challenge for the league title. In addition, United fans will be hoping that Luke Shaw can overcome his injury problems to provide the much-needed balance down the left. United’s season will hinge on Mourinho getting the best out of the players he already had, more than the new signings he has brought in this summer. Romelu Lukaku will be expected to score 30 odd goals this season but that will only replace what United have lost in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There is also no guarantee the Swede will be able to replicate his form from last season after his expected return in January adding extra pressure for Lukaku to perform. For the team to make the step up, the aforementioned supporting attackers and midfielders will need to contribute more. The early signs are good as Pogba, Martial, Rashford and Fellaini have already fired in goals with Mkhitaryan supplying the ammunition, picking up 5 assists in the opening 3 games of the season. This will need to continue if United are going to seriously compete at the top end of the table.
A Tantalising Mix
The squad has a good mix in many regards. I’ve already discussed the options available to Mourinho and this allowing him to experiment tactically with various formations in another post. In addition to this, there is a balance between the older players, those approaching their best years and the youngsters in the group; a notable feature of Alex Ferguson’s best squads.
Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will provide the leadership for the group and, with Ashley Young, will demonstrate the professionalism required to play at a top club. The addition of Nemanja Matic also adds to the proven experience and, importantly, the winning mentality needed. Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan add further experience from other leagues and both are at ages considered to be the prime years for footballers.
At the age of 24 Paul Pogba is young enough to improve but also has the experience of winning titles in Italy and playing under previous Manchester United greats. David de Gea also falls into this bracket and has the winning experience that the squad will rely on. They will still be looking to the senior players for guidance and advice but they will also be able to help a large group of players who are young and have huge potential. Bailly, Lindelof, Lingard, Rashford, Martial, Lukaku and Shaw are all 24 years or younger and have huge potential to grow together with De Gea and Pogba over the next five years. This is something we have seen in the current Real Madrid side who have largely had a settled team for the last 4 or 5 years and have grown into the best side in the world in that time. United have some way to go to reach that level, and may not, but a team that plays together for years is more likely to do so.
Behind them are the youngsters that always make up a Manchester United squad. Whilst Timothy Fosu-Mensah has been loaned out to Crystal Palace he looks like a great long-term prospect. He has started his loan spell impressively and has just won his first full international cap for the Netherlands. Andreas Pereira had a successful loan spell in La Liga last season and will be looking to build on that this year as he learns from Pogba, Matic and Carrick. Axel Tuanzebe will also be looking to get some game time to build on his impressive performances last season and makes up the trio of youth players who will be looking to have breakthrough seasons in the next year or so.
This mix of experience, youth and players approaching their prime is healthy for the squad and points towards an overall strategy that encompasses the short, medium and long-term goals of the club.
Team Spirit & Club Stability
The new signings over the last 12 months and the mix within the group does not seem to have affected the team spirit or morale. The atmosphere seems to be positive and the players look like they are enjoying themselves on and off the pitch. This helps to breed the confidence we have seen and Mourinho mentioned the mentality change within his side after Lukaku’s penalty miss against Leicester. The confidence is such that they did not let their heads drop and continued to dominate before finding the goals to secure the victory.
There is also the sense that many are great friends off the pitch. People may not like the videos posted of the players dancing, practising handshakes and larking about but they would do well to remember the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe, Rio Ferdinand, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole who all had various quirks to their goal celebrations and off field activities. In an era of social media, I feel that these things are more accessible for the general public than they are more prevalent. Whilst Giggs and Ince performed their famous, rehearsed goal celebration, Roy Keane simply ran back to his half and, similarly now, you are unlikely to see Antonio Valencia or Nemanja Matic performing a dab alongside Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. These are quirks we have always seen, albeit in different forms, and the best teams have a good dynamic and settled atmosphere even with the multitude of personalities that are inevitably present in a group with an age range between 18 and 36 years.
It’s also worth noting that the club as a whole have had a settled summer with no obvious issues at manager or owner level. The preseason tour went well with no major hitches and the overall atmosphere seems to be one of stability and positivity. This will only help the players and coaching staff to focus on the job at hand.
Of course, not everything is rosy and certainly the squad is not perfect. Mourinho publicly stated he wanted a fourth signing and it was widely reported that Ivan Perisic was identified as the natural winger that it is currently lacking. Ultimately the pursuit was fruitless but there are any number of reasons why this is the case and it would not be constructive to speculate. There are still plenty of options in the wide positions and, in particular, Martial and Rashford have started the season well playing in tandem on the left. Adding a natural wing man is an issue Mourinho will likely look to address in the next couple of transfer windows as he searches for the extra options he feels he needs to complete the squad.
There are also concerns at full back. On the left, there is the issue of Luke Shaw’s perennial injury problems and subsequent inability to establish himself in the side. The team lacks a full back to balance the great work Valencia does on the right. The investment in Shaw and his young age means the club probably feel he deserves the time to overcome his problems. They have, therefore, exercised an option to extend his contract by another year but Mourinho is not likely to have much patience after this season. The extra year will also allow United to recoup some of the money they spent on him if need be. On the right-hand side Valencia can be relied upon to play 50 games a season and has been excellent but when he isn’t in the side there is a distinct lack of width going forward. Matteo Darmian performed admirably last year but he doesn’t have the engine, speed and aggression of the Ecuadorian. The club were linked with Serge Aurier in the summer and will probably be thinking about succession planning given Valencia’s advancing age.
In addition, there is a slight concern with the way Lindelof has started, at least within the United fan base. Whilst Lukaku and Matic have made impressive starts to their United careers, Lindelof has looked shaky and is yet to feature in the Premier League. Consequently, Mourinho has clearly stated that he will be eased into the side. This is no surprise, however, and should not worry United fans. Centre back is an area of considerable depth in the squad and Eric Bailly and Phil Jones (both of whom were suspended for the European Super Cup Final) have been almost faultless in the first three league matches, helping the side to keep three successive clean sheets. There are plenty of examples of centre backs who have taken their time to settle into the pace of football in England. Most notably at United, both Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic started awkwardly before establishing themselves as two of the best the league has seen. Other clubs have also seen this pattern with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Laurent Koscielny and David Luiz, amongst others, all taking time to settle before establishing themselves at their respective clubs. Given the options that Mourinho has, it seems sensible to give the young Swedish international time to adapt to the league and compete for a place in the starting XI. Expect him to see more playing time in September as the League Cup and Champions League campaigns get under way and fixture schedules become more congested.
Of the top six clubs, United will likely be the happiest after the close of the transfer window. Having picked up maximum points from the opening games of the season without conceding a goal, they are well placed going into the international break. They have a settled, happy squad with a plethora of options in various positions and a balance to the ages of the players. Mourinho’s job now will be to maximise the potential he has at his disposal and manage the squad in order to navigate the challenges of competing in 4 competitions. This is where he will earn his crust as a coach, a manager and a mentor and United fans will give short shrift to any excuses that may be heard should he not deliver come the end of the season. For now, however, there should be optimism that this will be a successful season for the Red Devils.