With the UEFA Champions League final in the books and the Premiership long since petered out in an anticlimactic malaise, it’s now time for a review of Manchester United Football Club’s 2017 season.
All things considered, it turned out alright in the end. Two trophies won (no Jose Mourinho, you don’t get to include the Community Shield), one of which hasn’t had its prestige torn down over the years, by our own decision to use it for youth experience. Then again, we didn’t exactly treat the Europa League as much of a prize the year we fell into it from the Champions League and met defeat at the hands of Athletic Bilbao with an apathetic shrug. But then that was back when we had bigger fish to fry and weren’t facing tens of millions in sponsorship being forfeit by virtue of a Champions League participation clause.
So we drop the curtain on our season having finally won the last major trophy available to us. A Europa League and an “Ethel” (League Cup) take up residence in our trophy cabinet, with our fans that they’re just keeping the seats warm for grander prizes.
The season overall was typified by the nature of our 25 game undefeated streak. Like that streak, it was ultimately commendable, successful to a point, but still left something to be desired.
The 6th place finish would probably have been seen as disappointing at the beginning of the season, and to an extent it still is. There is some solace of course, to be had in the fact that the last few games were traded for the sake of squad health in the final rounds of the Europa. There’s also something to be said for the fact that performance-wise, progress has been made. If not for a stark lack of goals, United could have been well among the UCL qualification places and might even have had something to say about the one-and-a-half-horse title race between Chelsea and Tottenham.
Zlatan won’t be returning and even if he was, United would still need to find new sources of goals and more cohesive methods of attack.
It’s this one area where Mourinho must improve the side, as right now it’s more than a weakness – it’s an outright handicap.
With that said, at their best, Mourinho’s United were an organized, stubborn and difficult side to beat and if that can be maintained, then the goal-scoring issue becomes the final piece of the puzzle.
There was some discontent about the team’s style of play this season. A common theme among critics was the absence of the champaigne football of Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden years. Like much narrative, there’s an element of truth to it, but also exaggeration.
Mou is no dazzler. That’s been established since his first Chelsea stint. So much of his substantial success has been built on a pragmatic approach. It seems though that people have already forgotten that Fergie’s later titles were not won with swaggering panache. His stauncher critics would point to a failure to address a midfield that had understandably faded with the departures of Keane then Scholes. While that area of the pitch was adequate for the weekly grind of the Premiership, it was often a weakness in later Champions League campaigns.
While the lack of a title challenge underscores the fact that too many points have been dropped this season and the football has at times been about as sexy as Bill Odie in a pleather catsuit, success soothes many aches and if the payoff is a league title, there are plenty of United fans who would happily tolerate any number of disturbing Goodies references.
And so, on to the player ratings:
Paul Pogba 7.5/10
#Pogback was the hashtag with which United’s social media outlets celebrated what was actually a slightly embarrassing deal, given that we were paying $150m for a player we’d lost on a free transfer just a few years earlier.
That price tag came with a lot of expectation and ultimately, a lot of unfair criticism. Not that I’m one of those apologists that excuses poor signings with a conciliatory “the player can’t help his transfer fee”. If you’re signed for a lot of money (which typically means you’re getting a juicy signing-on fee and hefty salary) then you’re expected to deliver.
My point is that Pogba has delivered for the most part. Just not in the highlight-reel-friendly world of goals and assists. That’s not to say he shouldn’t have delivered a little more in that respect. It’s just that his general role isn’t defined by that aspect. It should also be noted that the kid has been deployed in a pseudo double-pivot system in which he’s had limited experience.
Despite all this, he’s been a huge asset in ball retention and general link-up play. He’s also proven a nightmare to get the ball off, with a reactive style of ball control that makes it look like his markers are playing in slow motion.
If he’d scored a few more goals, we’d be debating about who had the better year out of Pogba and Eden Hazard.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 8/10
Zlatan’s ego, confidence and swagger would all have to buy individual seats on a plane, if it weren’t for the fact that his charisma persuades ticketing agents otherwise.
He came, he saw, he pretty much conquered, and not only did he seem to have a good time doing it, he made everyone looking on feel like they were part of the party.
At times United’s only attacking threat, his work in the attacking third, barring the odd fluffed chance, was largely excellent.
He wasn’t flawless though, despite his aura projecting otherwise. His one significant flaw was his tendency to get lackadaisical when he strayed more than 30 yards from the opposing goal. Clever, deft touches and flicks, turned into sloppy giveaways in the middle of the park. Deployed as something of a false 9 at times, this hurt the team on occasion and he could have done with using a bit more thought, composure and frankly, simplicity when dropping deep. High risk moves can yield great rewards in and around the box. In the center circle, not so much.
Beyond that criticism though, he proved he still has it. Whether his late-season injury impacts his future, is yet to be seen, though we now know it won’t be in a United shirt.
Ander Herrera 9/10
While I defended Pogba above for not scoring goals, I did ultimately give him “marks off” for it, because it’s still a moderate part of his role.
It isn’t much of a part of Herrera’s. His is to win, retrieve and distribute the ball and to position himself to make life easy for his teammates and hard for opponents. This season he’s filled that role to immaculate effect.
Covering ground to ridiculous extents, making frequently excellent decisions, he’s the type of intelligent, unsung player that nonetheless, sets up the players around him to succeed. To my mind, United’s player of the year.
Antonio Valencia 7.5/10
Valencia has taken more than his share of stick over the years. Initially, he took flak from some quarters for not being the flashy, high-profile Ronaldo replacement that many were clamouring for when he first arrived. Spells of outstanding form on the wing, where he used just a few solid assets (namely pace, timing and crossing) to devastating effect, still wasn’t enough to win them over.
When repeated injuries robbed him of the blistering speed that he controlled and applied so well, it looked like the naysayers finally had a point and he was no longer a serious contributor to the team.
Then came a creditable stint as a makeshift fullback, which to my mind was only impressive to the point of being adequate for a guy played well out of position. There comes a point where you have to say “Okay, we need to find an actual fullback now”. For all Valencia’s good efforts in adapting to the new role, he was still a weakness there.
Or so I thought.
This season, I felt he finally came of age in his adopted position. The intelligence and timing that he once applied to his sprinting, he now applies to his movement up the right flank. He’s still not the most natural defender in the world but he’s solid and has the tenacity to recover on the odd occasion when his judgement might lapse. And coming from deep, he’s once again providing an attacking outlet on the right touch-line.
Eric Bailly 8/10
There are few roles where the understanding between partners is as important as in the center of defence. Even the best technical defenders can struggle as they adapt to a new back line.
In his first season with Manchester United, Eric Bailly’s rotated partners more often than Taylor Swift.
Despite this, you’d think he was the long-serving United stalwart, mentoring a string of newcomers, rather than the debutante, immediately thrown in at the deep end.
In the type of scenario normally described as “sink or swim”, Bailly moon-walked across the surface of the pool. Strong, smart and dependable, he held together a defence that should have been in tatters due to injury.
Daley Blind 7/10
One day I might critique a squad without resorting to a “jack of all trades, master of none” cliche, but this is not that day.
Daley Blind does a lot well. He does very little brilliantly. An adaptable utility player who wouldn’t be your first choice in many positions, but would be your third choice in most.
In a long season where United went deep on several fronts, despite falling apart from injury and exhaustion, Blind was an essential component.
I shall now copy and paste this into Notepad for use in future yearly reviews.
Phil Jones 6/10
One day I might critique a squad without resorting to a “jack of all trades, master of none” cliche, but as covered under Daley Blind’s critique, this is not that day.
There was a time when Phil Jones might have been that utility player, but I fear by this point, he has suffered for Fergie’s overuse of him in that capacity to the point where he’s a passable jack of… some trades… master of being a mediocre center back.
At one point I had high hopes for Phil as either a center back or a defensive midfielder. However, between being shunted from pillar to post and spells out through injury, I don’t think he ever got to truly master the nuances of those roles.
He’s best suited to the back these days and had a purple patch of form this year, but there are times when he seems to forget that defending means being aware of more than one thing at a time. I’ve lost count of the times he’s moved out of position to pursue one player, while another casually jogs into the chasm of space left behind him.
His time as a first choice defender for a top club might be past.
Marcos Rojo 6.5/10
I’ve lost count over the years, of the number of technically proficient defenders that have passed before my eyes, that have their effectiveness blunted by their mental attributes.
With some it’s reading of the game. For others, it is positional awareness. With many, it is plain concentration. With Rojo, it’s a hint of the latter, but mainly it’s discipline.
At 27, he has what it takes to evolve into a quality defender as he approaches his prime. This will happen if he learns to switch off less and temper some of his harsher challenges.
There are times when strength and aggression serve you well on the field. Rojo has a tendency to go a little beyond what’s necessary and was actually lucky a few times this season to avoid a couple more cards and suspensions.
Like Jones, he did have a couple of decent runs of form and I’ve more confidence in Marcos leveraging it into future improvement. Overall, he needs a bit more consistency.
Juan Mata 7.5/10
A suprise package in the fact that Mou used him quite regularly, suggesting that fears about their reportedly acrimonious relationship at Chelsea were somewhat unfounded.
Perhaps Jose’s memory isn’t what it was and he just confused him with Bastian Schweinsteiger?
In any case a solid season from the Spaniard. He’s still yet to recapture the type of form that made one of the Premiership and Chelsea’s leading stars but he’s proving productive, chipping in with goals and assists in a season where the club could use all they could get.
Maroune Fellaini 6.5/10
I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly sold on Fellaini.
I commend the guy’s spirit and determination. Whatever his many detractors say, he puts his heart into what he does and has endeared himself to every coach he’s played under for United.
Technically clunky and clumsy in the tackle, he’s often a yellow card waiting to happen.
There are times however, when he seems to succeed through sheer will.
Not a player I’d expect a United manager to build around, but a useful contributor who gives his all.
Luke Shaw 6.5/10
I feel bad for Luke Shaw. To my mind he’s a very real talent. A talented defender and solid in terms of getting forward, it’s looking like injuries could be his downfall.
Additionally, I didn’t care for Mourinho’s handling of the player. It’s one thing to reprimand the kid behind closed doors if he’s not pulling his weight in training. Making headlines of the player’s perceived work ethic is another. Taking credit for “managing” him through a strong performance is yet another and could be kryptonite for a kid already having to cope mentally with a succession of lengthy lay-offs in his formative years.
Henrik Mkhitaryan 6.5/10
A player I had (have) high hopes for. Mkhi has taken a little while to settle. Part of it is adapting to the league. Part of it is adapting to his teammates. I put a large part of it down to having to adapt to all this, while frequently being asked to play in different positions. In 2016-17, Henrikh was deployed in literally every attacking position available.
As you might expect, he found the most consistency playing in his natural position, behind the forward, where he was absolutely lethal for Borussia Dortmund.
With that said, he’ll be the second highly-regarded Dortmund attacking midfield player we’ve signed, that has struggled to settle. Shinji Kagawa’s exploits in Germany made him a very exciting prospect. I’m hoping this signing ends more successfully.
There is plenty of hope to be had, based on his Europa League performances. This points to the difference between the style of play in the Premier League and on the continent.
He remains a promising player and as I suggested, there are perhaps some mitigating circumstances to why he hasn’t adapted as fast as we might like. If he’s given a steadier role, he could come into his own next year.
Ashley Young 6/10
Limited minutes that may not even have been had, without the volume of games and injuries United endured.
He gives his best but you can’t help but feel that his time has come and gone.
Wayne Rooney 5/10
Like an ex turning up for Christmas dinner, Rooney’s presence has felt exceedingly awkward this season. Marginalised and a shadow of his former self when he did play, his declining stock was an ongoing subtext to the season.
It does bode well though, for Mou putting no player above the club. After losing the likes of Roy Keane and Ruud Van Nistelrooy for perceived sleights against the club, I was actually a little disappointed when Fergie and the Glazers pulled out all the stops to keep him at the club, after his first transfer demand.
There’s a more comprehensive blog entry that I should probably write about Wayne’s legacy when he finally departs. Whether he goes down as a legend or not, will likely be fiercely debated, but it’s fair to say that the relationship hasn’t always been smooth.
Chris Smalling 5/10
I sincerely feel that if Sir Alex was still around, Smalling would be a far more accomplished player today.
He has some ability and we still see flashes of it, such as his display in the Europa League final, but it feels like his trajectory has dipped as United continue to underachieve.
There were times this season where he felt absolutely inept and it feels that it’s largely based on confidence. If the player that was starting every game a few years ago is still in there, he needs to reemerge fast.
Jesse Lingard 6/10
I don’t mean this as a slam, but Lingard often strikes me as a poor man’s Danny Welbeck.
He’ll bust his gut for the shirt, has a decent degree of ability but if not for his penchant for scoring in key matches, he’d be on the outskirts of a strong United squad.
Michael Carrick 7/10
The legs may not be there anymore but the brain is and it has long been a primary tool for Carrick.
He will likely be phased out in the coming years – in fact the process has already begun – but he has valuable knowledge and experience to pass onto the likes of Pogba about reading the game and knowing when to do what.
Was solid to strong when used and remains an asset despite his advancing years.
Marcus Rashford 6.5/10
I don’t know if it’s the fact that he burst on the scene so unexpectedly or that some of his goals this season came at important moments, but he seems to have dodged criticism for a few fallow spells this season.
I’ve read criticism that Zlatan wasn’t effective enough on the playmaking side of his role, however I don’t think that complaint would be out there if Rashford and Co had made better on some of their chances.
With that said, two years ago he was just a decent United reserve prospect that few were touting. He’s certainly come a long way and has a pretty strong head on his shoulders for one so young.
You have to feel the best is yet to come.
Matteo Darmian 7/10
Solid, dependable, without really being spectacular.
(Can you tell I’m rushing to finish this?)
Anthony Martial 6/10
Like Rashford, burst upon the scene last season, though with markedly more expectation.
The two young forwards have faced parallels in form this season. Martial didn’t get the number of crunch goals that Rashford did and gets less of a pass, having signed last season as the world’s most expensive teenager, expected to contribute in short order.
He certainly delivered on that in 2015-16 but had a bit of a sophomore slump this season. It’s still early days though.
David De Gea 8/10
Make no mistake about it: De Gea has been United’s star player in recent seasons, at times carrying United through atrocious levels of performance, to relatively respectable results.
Elite in his role, losing him to Real Madrid would be like Chelsea losing Eden Hazard.
The threat of any player seeing another club as a better path to glory than Man United, should not sit well with upper management. I don’t blame De Gea if he truly does see his future elsewhere. That’s the business end of the game. I also realize that for many Spanish, Real Madrid and Barcelona are more mythical than any other option.
At the same time, the opportunity to win trophies, should never be a reason for a team of Man United’s profile and ludicrous resources, to lose a player.
Sergio Romero 8/10
If Romero can continue perform the way he did in the Europa League run, it might go a long way to cushioning the blow if DDG does move on.
He was excellent throughout and thoroughly deserved his place between the sticks in the final.