Jose Mourinho’s underwhelming first Premier League campaign as Manchester United manager will be deemed largely irrelevant if his side are triumphant in the Europa League final in Stockholm this evening.
The Red Devils finished the season in sixth place, their second-worst final standing of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but victory over Ajax will provide the third trophy of the season (Community Shield included) and Champions League football for 2017/18 – from a pragmatic point of view, in typical Mourinho style, that kind of return from a debut campaign is tough to argue with.
Nonetheless, success in the English top flight remains the bread and butter for a club of Manchester United’s historic prestige and progress in the auxiliary competitions alone next season won’t be enough to pave over the many cracks that have emerged at Old Trafford since Ferguson’s retirement.
Admittedly, United’s 2016/17 campaign did show signs of improvement from Louis van Gaal’s tenure, even though the Red Devils finished worse off in the Premier League table. More than anything else, Mourinho has replaced the laboriousness of his predecessor’s possession-obsessed philosophy with a pragmatic results-comes-first grittiness, an ability to grind out results even when exciting performances aren’t forthcoming – often the hallmark of Premier League champions.
And things could well have been very different for United this season, having finished up with the most draws of any Premier League side – a staggering 15. If Mourinho’s boys had managed to turn just a third of those into victories, they’d have pushed Tottenham Hotspur for a place in the top two. Goalscoring was the biggest problem, netting the fewest times of any team in the top seven and less than ninth-placed Bournemouth.
Further gains must be made next season and our weird and wonderful statistics shed some light as to where. Considering what we’ve come to expect of Mourinho from his two spells as Chelsea manager, United’s return for goals from set pieces is exceptionally low – especially when bearing in mind the number of aerial targets within the squad such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly.
Likewise, United’s high volume of clearances and fouls highlights their new-found grittiness, but also why not everybody has been convinced by the style of play on show at Old Trafford this season – perhaps the factor that requires Mourinho’s attention most ahead of 2017/18. Yet, the number of players used hints at why Mourinho’s United have struggled to find their groove; as much as one may question his tactics, a combination of constant injuries and a willingness to give everybody a chance has forced the Portuguese into near-relentless rotation.
Of course, what will please United fans more is the number of former academy players given the nod at first-team level this season, bucking the anti-youth tag that has hung around Mourinho’s neck for much of his career. That includes players like Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, who have been called upon frequently throughout the campaign, but also the quartet of debutants who featured against Crystal Palace on the final day of the season.
Overall, some mixed numbers that point in different directions – but that’s very symptomatic of United’s first Premier League term under Mourinho; a lesser league standing than the year before and some questionable performances along the way, yet subtle signs of progress hinting at more success in the top flight next season. Whether that proves true, however, will largely depend on United’s actions in the transfer market this summer.