2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

Author: Chris Altruda

Currently a freelance sportswriter on the hunt for full-time work. If you like my work or have constructive criticism, please share it and/or contact me at chris.altruda@hotmail.com or via Twitter at @AlTruda73 My portfolio of clippings can be viewed at http://www.clippings.me/caltruda And thank you for taking time out of your day to read my posts.

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