Ever since the emergence of their noisy (and vastly wealthy) neighbours, life has been tough for the United faithful. Sir Alex Ferguson did a good job in keeping them at arm’s length or at least tackling them head-on, but since his departure, there has been no debate over who rules the roost in Manchester. Successive managers – David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal – both failed miserably to continue Sir Alex’s legacy but, while question marks still remain over his playing style, Jose Mourinho has shown signs of being able to close the Manchester gap.
But more of the same won’t be enough and so there are areas of his squad that Mourinho is looking to improve upon. Already he has completed four new signings, with young full-back Diogo Dalot arriving from Porto, goalkeeper Lee Grant signing as one of the back-up keepers from Stoke City and, crucially, the Brazil midfielder Fred – a long time target of Mourinho – finally arriving from Shakhtar Donetsk.
But Mourinho wants more before the Premier League kicks off, with one of the most important areas to strengthen being centre-back. Both Toby Alderweireld, from Tottenham, and Harry Maguire, from Leicester City, have been heavily linked, but with both excelling at the World Cup, their extended summer breaks have prolonged negotiations. In an ideal world, one suspects Mourinho would sign both but with there being a significant disparity between United’s and Tottenham’s valuations of Alderweireld, there’s a theory that Maguire’s may end up being an easier transfer to complete.
Reports suggest that Mourinho also wants to bring in a new right winger and the name Ivan Perisic – a star of Croatia’s wonderful World Cup – refuses to go away, but the United manager currently cuts a disconsolate figure as he tries, with difficulty, to bring in the names he wants.
In terms of team shape, last season he alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 system, with the latter tending to be his go-to formation as the season neared its end.
The goalkeeper position is one that’s sparked much debate, given the constant link of David de Gea with Real Madrid, but assuming he stays, the Spaniard will be Mourinho’s number one.
In defence, United fans are now used to the sight of Antonio Valencia at full-back and will be hoping that Eric Bailly finally fulfils his potential alongside him at centre-back in partnership with either Maguire or Alderweireld. Victor Lindelof, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling may, however, have other ideas, and at left back it now looks at if Dalot’s arrival has signalled the end at Old Trafford for Luke Shaw. The new Portuguese man will, it looks likely, be in a battle for the berth with Ashley Young. Throw Alex Sandro into that same mix too – a transfer that looks likely to be sealed anytime soon – with the Brazilian adding to the battle for left-back.
The signing of Fred has added some top quality to United’s midfield mix and United fans are already drooling at the prospect of Fred dovetailing with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba in a midfield trio that is up there with the very best. In addition, they have Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay to add competition in that area.
Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku look to be guaranteed starters in the attacking positions, and it’s hard to see Mourinho leaving out Marcus Rashford after the good World Cup he enjoyed with England, but quite where that leaves Anthony Martial is unclear; the Frenchman having been linked to Tottenham amongst others. Jesse Lingard is another who excelled in Russia and will be looking for more than a bit part role, and Juan Mata too will not be happy with the odd cameo. Mourinho will need to draw on all of his experience and managerial skill to balance the workload and keep this group settled and motivated.
One interesting subplot is that the name of Gareth Bale that refuses to go away – some outlets reporting that he is now Mourinho’s main target. But, having lost Ronaldo to Juve, Real Madrid may yet be able to tempt Bale to stay with the offer of more game time. But it’s a very intriguing prospect for United fans, who would clearly love to have the Welshman flying down the Old Trafford wing and terrorising defences. If they could land Bale, the Reds’ fans would see it as a genuine signal of intent in the club’s desire to close the gap on City, and it is certainly one that would put a smile back on the face of Mourinho, who has expressed disappointment at the speed, or lack of, of the summer deals to date.
Much depends on how successful Mourinho is in landing more big names, but on paper, United are arguably the club best equipped to tackle the Man City dominance. Add a Gareth Bale into the mix, perhaps a Toby Alderweireld, and there would be scope to believe that the biggest prize is within their reach. Mourinho is a winner, no question, and that he’s not been able to get close to the title since his arrival in Manchester will rankle. For him, this season is massive.
As things stand, United are third-favourites for the title and are pitched at a rather juicy +800 , which is well worth an each-way shot and will look ridiculously generous if Bale does arrive.
Alexis Sanchez to score 15 or more Premier League goals – +150 with BetVictor
Manchester Utd to achieve 85 or more Premier League points – +400 with BetVictor
Paul Pogba to score 10 or more Premier League goals – +225 with BetVictor