Jose Mourinho took over Manchester United last June. By the time the season started in August, he had signed Paul Pogba for a world record fee, added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, got Eric Bailly to anchor the backline and could call Henrikh Mkhitaryan a luxury buy.
That would be enough to set expectations sky high anywhere, but this was Manchester United. And he was Jose Mourinho. There was no chance that expectations were going to be in the realm of reality.
Now, after Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford, they are League Cup champions and Europa League champions with a spot in the Champions League. That is about the most unimpressive double possible, and one that the Red Devils would prefer to never even be eligible for again. Their sixth place Premier League finish didn’t exactly light the world on fire either.
Despite it all, it’s hard to consider the season anything but a massive success. And that Mourinho did a pretty brilliant job managing the Red Devils.
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It was Mourinho who sold Ibrahimovic on signing with Manchester United, and he identified Bailly. But even after the transfer work was done, he had a lot of work to do.
First up was to mold a competent midfield around Pogba with players like Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, none of whom had looked capable of featuring for a good team in years. It took a few months, but Mourinho did that, adopting a three-man midfield that allowed Pogba to do, well, everything. Herrera’s passing became an asset and the lack of mobility, aside from the Frenchman, was no longer much of an issue. Even Fellaini found a role in the team, which was nothing short of a miracle.
The ramshackle defense, which struggled as Bailly found his legs and relied on Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marco Rojo, whichever two happened to be healthy, did well enough. Their 29 goals conceded was second-best in the Premier League and only once allowing more than a goal in 15 Europa League contests, astonishing figures considering the way those same defenders played in recent seasons and the injuries to the Red Devils defense.
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It’s easy to focus on the Manchester United stars, and they helped plenty, but Mourinho had plenty of lesser players he had no choice but to tap this season. Wayne Rooney played 25 times and Carrick 30. Daley Blind was a fixture, with 35 appearances, and Fellaini played 28 times. Even youngsters like Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe had to play a part. Teams that lean on those kinds of players that much aren’t exactly playing with a full deck, but Mourinho turned to them, and he got results.
Manchester United could have done even better this season had it not been for shoddy finishing and bad luck. Few teams underperformed their expected goals like the Red Devils, and this came in a Premier League that was stronger and deeper at the top than any before it. What Manchester United did this season would have netted them a top two or three finish in most years.
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This wasn’t most years, though. As a result, Manchester United had to decide whether to chase a Champions League place with a top four Premier League finish or to make a run at the Europa League. Mourinho chose the latter, and it did not come without criticism, as he threw reserves and youngsters out in the Premier League. It was a decision that would have been a disaster had the Red Devils not won the Europa League, but they did and in dominant fashion. Another move by Mourinho that worked to perfection.
While it’s easy to say that the League Cup and Europa League are below Manchester United’s levels of excellence, it’s worth remembering how low these Red Devils have been. How flawed their squad is. How much work Mourinho had to do.
This isn’t the Manchester United of old. They hired Mourinho specifically to get them back to those lofty heights, knowing the work and time it would take.
One year in, Mourinho has delivered two trophies and a Champions League place. That’s pretty damn good, as he’ll happily point out.
“In a bad season where at times I felt my team was the worst team in the world, when at times I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies,” Mourinho said after the Europa League triumph.
Maybe he’s calling the Community Shield his third trophy. Hopefully he’s taking a jab at Arsene Wenger and calling the Champions League spot a trophy.
Either way, Mourinho did the job this season. He did a great job. And next season he will be luckier, and with a few more shiny new toys to patch the Red Devils many holes. This is hardly the mountain top for Manchester United, but it is a pretty huge step. An impressive one.