How could Manchester United line up next season, should their major transfer targets complete their moves to Old Trafford?
Last season may have ended with Europa League glory – taking United back into the Champions League for the first time in three seasons – but even the most ardent Old Trafford optimist would hesitate to label 2016/17 a success, as, for a club of United’s stature and transfer outlay, sixth in the Premier League is not good enough.
In his second season at the United helm, Jose Mourinho will be under pressure to at least mount some form of title tilt, especially with some big-money signings set to expand an already costly squad.
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According to Sky sources, Alvaro Morata is seen as the perfect replacement to the outgoing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another out-of-favour Real Madrid star, James Rodriguez, is a reported target, while Mourinho could strengthen his firepower in wider positions by acquiring Croatia international Ivan Perisic.
But where would these new arrivals fit into the Mourinho masterplan? What system will the arch-pragmatist deploy? Here are our picks and then have your say…
Never one to throw caution to the wind, we would expect Mourinho to stick to his safer 4-2-3-1, rather than a more attacking 4-3-3 in 2017/18. Paul Pogba has often stated he likes to be utilised on the left of a midfield three, but Mourinho is likely to favour the more defensive 4-2-3-1 with two in front of the back four, rather than a risky one.
Stifling the opposition and hitting opponents on the counter attack is Mourinho’s weapon of choice. Even in the Europa League final, United only had just over 30 per cent possession – keeping the ball is not important to Mourinho.
It seemed for a long time that David de Gea’s stay in Manchester would finally be coming to an end, but all has gone quiet on that front, which will be music to United fans’ ears.
Mourinho has moved quickly to get his man in the centre of defence. Not a great deal is known about Victor Lindelof to the masses, but having shelled out £30.7m on the Sweden international, Mourinho and the United hierarchy clearly like what they see.
According to reports in Portugal, Mourinho is understood to be particularly impressed with Lindelof’s speed as well as his defensive capabilities, seeing similarities between the Swede and Raphael Varane, who Mourinho managed at Real Madrid.
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Lindelof seems to have already made his mind up about who he wants to partner, heaping praise on Eric Bailly in a recent interview. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will offer stern competition, but Bailly is likely to get the nod after an impressive first season in England.
Luke Shaw and Mourinho haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but putting in the hard miles in pre-season could win the Portuguese round. Antonio Valencia is a near-cert starter at right-back.
Ander Herrera was the go-to man for Mourinho last season. Combative and relentlessly mobile, Herrera is the sort of antagonistic player Mourinho favours, and compliments the finesse of Pogba alongside perfectly.
As previously mentioned, Pogba may not prefer this deep-lying position in a 4-2-3-1 system, but he may have to get used to it.
Even from deep, Pogba can be a huge asset. Averaging over three shots per game last season, the France international also averaged more passes per game than any other player other than Jordan Henderson last campaign.
Could the prodigal son make a sensational return this summer? That has been the question on everyone’s lips in recent weeks, after reports emerged that Cristiano Ronaldo was unhappy at Real Madrid.
However, even with the emotional connection clearly still prevalent between Ronaldo and the club who nurtured him on the path to superstardom, a move seems unlikely, when you consider Ronaldo’s value to Real, and while reports suggest Robert Lewandowski is keen on a move to England, Sky sources understand Chelsea are the preferred option.
Nonetheless, the forward line is where Mourinho has a real bounty of options, should the projected transfers be finalised.
Despite the hefty price tag, it still seems Morata arrival in Manchester seems imminent. The 24-year-old was given his Real Madrid debut by Mourinho in 2010, and had a La Liga strike rate bettered only by Lionel Messi last season.
Another target who looks set to make the move to the 20-time top-flight champions is Croatia international Ivan Perisic. Mourinho prefers to deploy wide forwards, and with out-and-out wingers in short supply across Europe, Perisic has emerged as a potential acquisition.
The 28-year-old created 63 chances in Serie A for Inter Milan last season, eight more than United’s best creator Pogba, and managed eight assists, two more than United’s leading provider Anthony Martial.
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Another Real Madrid star who looks set to leave is James Rodriguez, with United a potential destination. The Colombia international has found himself out-of-favour in the Spanish capital, and possesses all the ability to create and score out of nowhere – a key attribute for a defence-minded Mourinho.
Marcus Rashford seems to have persuaded Mourinho raw enthusiasm is an asset to the side; meaning he is likely to be a firm fixture next season.
Can Mourinho mastermind another title triumph?
The short answer is yes, of course a manager who has won league titles in four of Europe’s top divisions can steer his current side to another, especially with a wealth of top talent at his disposal.
However, it remains to be seen if the Portuguese’s rather reserved approach could stifle the creative instincts of some of his attacking arsenal.
Also, while it is clear reinforcements in attack will be added to the playing personnel, there is very little talk of any new defensive arrivals coming in, and with Champions League football to contend with once more, defensively, the squad may appear stretched as the season wears on.