Happy New Year! First off, here’s our resident London Bureau Chief (recently temporarily relocated to Lome), Syl, with his rather too glass half full view of what 2017 holds in store for his beloved Manchester United.
2017, the year of optimism and expectation- a feeling of sanguinity for the Manchester United fan base. Not only was 2016 a year of ups and downs but it also offered a mixed bag of results for the club faithful. Firstly, United did not succeed in finishing in the top four which meant that they missed out on the lucrative Champions League football at the expense of their fierce city rivals, Manchester City. However, on a more positive note, 2016 saw Manchester United win the FA Cup, a trophy that had eluded the club for a while during the last years of Sir Alex Ferguson reign. It was also the year that United sacked their second manager since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Although Louis Van Gaal was in charge for two years he was sent packing for failing to finish in the top four despite winning the FA Cup. This goes to show that long serving football managers in the English Premier League have become an endangered species. 2016 also served as the year Manchester City sent a message to their city rivals of their football intentions by appointing the much sought after manager Pep Guardiola. In retaliation, United unveiled Jose Mourinho who had just overseen one of the worst title defences by a reigning champion in the recent times when Chelsea capitulated in an unexpected fashion. Looking back at that appointment, this article takes a look at the journey Mourinho has had and gives an outlook of what to expect in 2017 as we enter the second half of the season.
Rumours of the sacking of Louis Van Gaal had been around for the longest time possible. This prompted him to come out guns blazing blaming the media for having ‘sacked’ him even though the club hierarchy still had belief in him. The challenge for LVG was that his style of football tended to clash not only with the United executives but also the fan base. His inter-personal relationship with senior players was an issue of concern especially following the high turnover of star players who could not stomach his regime. This turnover occurred at a time when results were also not something to write home about. It was an open secret that LVG would not be at United in the coming season. But the question was who was going to replace him? His loyal assistant and club legend Ryan Giggs continued to be linked with the job. However, after learning from the David Moyes mistake, it was questionable as to whether he was ready for such a high profile job.
Across the city, Manuel Pellegrini came out publicly and declared that he was not going to be with the moneyed Manchester City in the season that was upcoming. With no time wasted, City corroborated his statement by announcing Pep Guardiola as their new manager mid-way through the season. This appointment sent a chilling message not only to Manchester United but to a host of English Premier league teams of their intentions to dominate English football. How then would the great Manchester United respond to that? Would it be by appointing a novice in the name of Ryan Giggs? That would have been disastrous to many of the fans. There was only one man who could stop the Pep Guardiola party and it was not going to be Ryan Giggs. The media picked up the song and put it on repeat mode for the whole world to hear. Only Jose Mourinho could stop Pep Guardiola, went the chorus. After all he had done it before when the two met in Spain during a tumultuous era coupled by controversies and fights. Therefore, if Manchester United wanted to stem their free fall from glory, then Jose had to be hired.
The powers that be at Manchester United were keen to listen and subsequently appointed Jose Mourinho. The dalliance between Jose Mourinho and Manchester United came to the fore after Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement. It is alleged that Jose really wanted the United job and when David Moyes was appointed, he literally wept for being overlooked. This time round there was no second guessing, he was the man to return United back to its former glory.
Midway through the season, has the United fear factor come back? To be honest there is a huge improvement on both the David Moyes and LVG eras in terms of style of play, creation of chances and win ratio. This is despite United starting the season slow with many home draws against teams they would have blown away with the kind of personnel United have at their disposal. These draws quickly raised eyebrows and brought back the old debate of whether Jose Mourinho had reached his point of no return. After a huge investment in the transfer market which saw the arrivals of Zlatan Ibrahimović, the world’s most expensive player in Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, many expected United to blow away the league. That did not happen especially in the Premier League. United were and are still firmly rooted in the 6th position with little signs of moving upwards especially as the teams above them continue grinding out results. The derby loss to City in September in addition to the total embarrassment at Mourinho’s former stomping ground, Stamford Bridge, were some of the highlights of his 2016 era. At the time of writing, United have stemmed the dropping of points and are on an eight game unbeaten run. They are still challenging for the four trophies available to them. After what looked like a league that was beyond their reach, the continued inconsistencies of the teams at the top has ensured that United are back in the title race with their recent run of results.
One important point to note for this recent good run has been the immense good form that Zlatan Ibrahimović is in after a slow start of the season. Subsequently, Paul Pogba has proved why he carries such a huge price tag with some good performances. He has also amicably dealt with the big elephant, Wayne Rooney, without creating chaos in the team. Jose Mourinho has also tinkered very little with the squad. After his rant about having players with a weak mentality in the team, outcasts like Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have since seized the opportunity and have become the proverbial stone that the builders rejected. They have put in super performances that have helped United conjure up a winning run. The league position has not changed for United but to both foe and ally, there is general consensus that they seem to have turned around the corner.
Going into 2017, they are not far from the leading pack and only three point separates them from the top four. It is still too early to start praising Jose, but he deserves credit for turning the season around. The upcoming game against fierce rivals Liverpool will offer an acid test for the improved United. Winning that will give the fans hope that 2017 will be an amazing year of football.
Let us not forget that United is still chasing a quadruple. This only has two scenarios; of either missing out on all or at least going home with a silver ware. It is highly unlikely that the latter will happen. Will 2017 make or break Jose Mourinho’s United tenure? Only time will tell.