For many the 2016-17 season was to be the year that Manchester United returned to their familiar place at the top of the Premier League. In Jose Mourinho they had the coach that they had been crying out for since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. On the field, the then World record signing of Paul Pogba along with the capture of Henrikh Mkhitaryan added some much needed creativity to a one paced midfield whilst Zlatan Ibrahimovic promised, and ultimately delivered goals. However, whilst they proved hard to beat, they lacked the overall goals to turn draws into wins and finished the season in a disappointing sixth place, 24 points behind eventual winners Chelsea.
Despite the disappointment of last season though, 2017-18 looms as an exciting one for the Red Devils for a number of reasons.
Once again, United have strengthened their squad. The loss of club legend Wayne Rooney to Everton does not hurt as much as it may have given the recent decline in his production and though many fans were hoping that the club would offer Ibrahimovic another contract, the club looks stronger in attack now that an any point since Robin Van Persie left.
The key arrival up front is that of Romelu Lukaku. Whilst a transfer fee of a reported £75m would have made the eyes water a mere two years ago, the way that transfer fees have exploded this year makes it look like a reasonable amount to pay for a forward that has scored a phenomenal 85 goals in 186 Premier League games and is still just 24 years old. Perhaps most importantly for Manchester United is that Lukaku is the sort of forward that Mourinho loves to have in his teams, the comparison to Didier Drogba is a lazy one but the truth is that Lukaku plays a similar game, he is quick, strong and a good header of the ball. At Chelsea Mourinho had Drogba, at Inter he had Milito and at Real Madrid he had Ronaldo. If Lukaku can have the same impact in a Mourinho team as these guys did then he will be a very good signing for Manchester United.
What is also significant for United from a forward perspective is the progression of the other younger players in the squad. Marcus Rashford is developing nicely and seems to be high in the coach’s plans for the new season, perhaps even starting in a wide role supporting Lukaku. Anthony Martial had an unimpressive 2016-17 season but has raised eyebrows in pre-season, none more so than with his scintillating run and assist against Real Madrid in Orlando.
In the wide attacking positions United are well stocked. Mkhitaryan took some time to settle into life in the Premier League but is now a favourite of the coach, Juan Mata though not always a Mourinho favourite is a classy creator whilst Martial can play anywhere across the front line. Manchester United don’t really have traditional wingers and usually play a fairly narrow, high pressing game but these players are all capable of playing effectively out wide.
In the midfield Paul Pogba may finally be able to sleep easy, safe in the knowledge that Marouane Fellaini should get less playing time this year given the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea. For all of Pogba’s qualities, he does sometimes have a tendency to try and do too much on his own resulting in a larger number of turnovers than United would like. However, with a true, ball winning lynchpin like Matic sitting behind him, Pogba should have more freedom to continue to try and make things happen. If the European Super Cup Final defeat to Real Madrid was any kind of guide we can expect to see a central three of Pogba, Matic and Ander Hererra. The evergreen Michael Carrick and enigmatic (if we are being kind) Fellaini offer experienced back up, whilst youngster Andreas Perreira proved he is ready for first team action after an impressive loan spell at Granada last year and could see plenty of action if Mourinho decides not to loan him out again.
In defence, Mourinho looks set to consist with a back five with width being supplied by the excellent Antonio Valencia on the right and Daley Blind on the left. The strength in depth that Manchester United posses means that these wide players can be selected based upon the needs of the team and Mourinho is not afraid to play more attacking players in these roles with Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young having appeared there last year. Whilst neither Lingard or Young would be players that you would expect to feature often in a championship challenging team, they are effective options to have when needed.
In the centre of defence, the first choice three look to be last year’s success story Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and new boy Victor Lindelof (though the fans don’t seem too happy with his early showings). Phil Jones has proven that he is a good option when he stays fit, which unfortunately is becoming rarer and rarer, whilst Marcos Rojo is an adequate back up.
Back stopping all of the above is possibly the World’s best goalkeeper in David De Gea. Rumours of De Gea’s departure have followed the club for the past few years but still he remains a Manchester United player and he just gets better every year. A goalkeeper of De Gea’s quality gives any team an opportunity to win and United need to take advantage of that before he does move on.
There is no doubt that Manchester United have strengthened their squad and now look well placed to launch an assault not just on the Premier League but also on the Champions League which they qualified for as beneficiaries of the recent rule changes decreeing that the Europa League champions gain entry to the Champions League.
The problem for Manchester United is that, perhaps barring Chelsea, their rivals have also strengthened.
Manchester City clearly decided that full-back was a position of weakness for them and have spent a considerable amount to rectify that in addition to other areas.
Arsene Wenger has had his usual summer of promising much and delivering little, but Alexander Lacazette does look to be the forward that Arsenal were missing.
Alvaro Morata spent much of this summer awaiting the call to become a Manchester United player and ultimately ended up signing for Chelsea and their ever decreasing squad of players.
Liverpool haven’t had the summer that they or their fans were hoping for as of yet and the jury is out as to whether former Chelsea flop Mohamed Salah can justify his large transfer fee, however, they are pushing hard to get more targets in before the end of the transfer window.
Tottenham have perhaps had the most significant season of all of the title contenders by not losing any of their key players. Whilst Mauricio Pochettino would love to bring some quality into the squad, he is not one to panic buy and if the players aren’t available to improve his team then Tottenham won’t do too much more this window.
However, despite the moves that their rivals have been making, when you consider all of the other squads in the Premier League, it is hard not to see Manchester United’s as the strongest. With Jose Mourinho in his second season as coach and a number of the younger players developing further, this is the year for Manchester United to show that they are once again the top team in England and I’m backing them to do so.