Man U responds to pressure, expectations
WITH EUROPA LEAGUE TITLE
STOCKHOLM — Two trophies, qualification for the Champions League, and a re-establishment of the club’s old aura and winning mentality.
Jose Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United can be deemed a success.
For all his spin, his at-times questionable man-management and the cautious approach of his team, Mourinho is proving to be the coach to whom United really should have turned after the retirement of Alex Ferguson in 2013.
The tenures of David Moyes (10 months) and Louis van Gaal (two years) set United back, and are blots in its illustrious recent history. England’s biggest club looks to be in the right hands now.
Winning the Europa League — courtesy of a 2-0 victory over Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday — was a game-changer for United and Mourinho. It secured an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League group stage, meaning United are back with the big boys of European soccer.
Where United should be, given its history, prestige, and wealth.
“For me, it’s the most important trophy of my career,” said Mourinho, who is never shy of hyperbole.
Mourinho said he was looking forward to taking a break from the game after a taxing last few months of the season, capped by playing the Europa League final in the wake of the bomb attack at a concert in Manchester that killed 22 people.
Yet, in the back of his mind, he will surely be plotting forensically for next season.
His shopping list of potential signings is already in the hands of United vice chairman Ed Woodward, with Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann likely at the top of it.
“Now it’s up to him and the owners,” Mourinho said.
United has splashed out more than $500 million on signings in the transfer market in the past three off-seasons. Another summer of heavy spending is likely.
But the pressure is on Mourinho to get the right players in, because fans might not be so tolerant of his pragmatic and often-defensive style the longer his reign goes on. At some stage, Mourinho needs to take the handbrake off and allow his team of stars to express themselves more.
United scored one goal in away matches against other members of the Premier League’s top six this season. In each of those games, the team lined up defensively, seemingly happy to leave with a 0-0 draw or to nick a goal on the break. That will have to change. Mourinho has other challenges. What does he do with Wayne Rooney, United’s captain and record scorer whose best days are behind him?
Will goalkeeper David De Gea, possibly United’s best player over the past three years, be sold to Real Madrid?
Does United look to keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is set to be unavailable for at least half of next season with a knee injury? Ibrahimovic will be out of contract in a few weeks.
Other areas that need strengthening are left back, central midfield, and potentially centre back.
Still, these are exciting times for United.
And, after finishing a disappointing sixth place in the Premier League, the team should be a genuine title challenger for the first time since Ferguson left United as English champion in 2013.
Under Mourinho, Manchester United should be feared once again.
“We performed like a big club, a big team,” United midfielder Ander Herrera said after the Europa League final, sounding every inch a future captain of the team.
“Very serious and very smart,” he said.
And that’s United under Mourinho. “In a bad season, in a season where sometimes I felt that my team was the worst team in the world, where I felt sometimes I was the worst manager in the world, we manage to win three trophies,” Mourinho said, referring to the Europa League, the League Cup, and the Community Shield.
“It is the end of a very difficult season,” he added. “But a very, very good season.”
Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney lifts the trophy after winning the Europa League final Wednesday.