Mourinho’s Sophomore Challenge

Jose Mourinho is noted for many things. One of them is that he does better in his second season of being in charge of a team. After a mixed freshman season where his successes were downplayed and his methods questioned and ridiculed, he is out to prove that he can win more competitive trophies. For Mourinho and United, the Premier League will be priority number one.

Mourinho’s sophomore success is a testament of his forensic skills and careful reading of the game. He assesses his team’s weaknesses and fills them. After a season beset by a low amount of goals despite ample chance creation, Mourinho knew that he needed attacking reinforcements. The injury to Zlatan Ibrahimović, United’s top scorer all but settled the case for investing in the position. To fix that United brought in Romelu Lukaku from Everton. Lukaku’s transfer fee has been hotly contested but Mourinho wanted league experience and a massive presence. Lukaku looks to be a good fit, and additionally he’s also good friends with Pogba. Mourinho will hope that their bromance can be a source of torment for opposition teams.

In midfield, United brought in Nemanja Matic from Chelsea. At 29, there were minor concerns about his fee as well, but again, Mourinho wanted league experience. In Matic, he got ample experience and a winning mentality. Matic’s tactical discipline makes him a quintessential Mourinho player. As one of Mourinho’s trusted lieutenants in his second spell at Chelsea, it won’t take long for the Serbian to know and deliver what his manager wants.

Matic’s arrival adds stability and defensive cover to the United midfield. The ultimate beneficiary of his acquisition is Paul Pogba. Many have joked that Matic is like a charger bought to power an expensive phone. With Pogba showing unease at his defensive responsibilities last season, Matic’s arrival relieves him from most defending duties. Paired with Herrera, United will have willing runners (compared to the less mobile Michael Carrick) to support Pogba. Mourinho expects more goals and more assists from Pogba.

In defense, Lindelöf arrived from Benfica. With Rojo’s long term absence, the Swedish center back will slot in to add depth. Lindelöf was not impressive in his pre-season outings and will need more time to adjust, but he looks to be a formidable presence in Mourinho’s plan.

Minus the protracted drama to sign Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic, Manchester United have had a successful transfer window.  United strengthened and staved off alleged interests in Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini.  While Inter’s asking fee continues to prevent both clubs from reaching a common ground, it seems likely that United will eke a deal at the last minute, given Mourinho’s persistent lamentation about the slow pace of United’s business dealings and the need for squad depth.

On the pitch, United had a successful campaign too. With one loss out of six in pre-season, there is growing excitement around Old Trafford that this season will bring back the old Mourinho and restore the club’s old invincibility.  Anthony Martial who was constantly criticized in many of Mourinho’s bizarre press conferences last season impressed by scoring and assisting three times. Lukaku got some crucial goals. Marcus Rashford continued his fine scoring form and Henrik Mkhitaryan created and scored. The youth players who travelled with the squad had impressive outings.

But the inability to land Perisic is not Mourinho’s only problem. At left back, there is a still a gaping hole and uncertainty about staffing. Luke Shaw, the most natural player to fill the role, is out injured. Daley Blind has not impressed this preseason. Matteo Darmian could slot in as Shaw recovers, but Mourinho doesn’t fancy the Italian on the left flank. Both Blind and Darmian, while decent players, lack pace. With the way United plan to set up next season, pace will be a crucial requirement for most of the regular starters.

United have not been linked to any left back in this window.  This signals a shift to a formation where there are three in the back. Alternatively, it seems like Mourinho is willing to give Luke Shaw a chance to save his United career.

On paper, the left back role is probably United’s only concern going forward. In midfield and attack, Mourinho’s options are plenty. In goal, De Gea looks set to remain, Romero is growing in stature and young Joel Pereira has shown glimpses of his talents.

United will face Real Madrid in UEFA’s Super Cup tomorrow, thank to winning the Europa League. It will be club’s first major test ahead of their return to continental football. But Mourinho will view the game as a trophy contest. Based on his insistence to count the Community Shield as part of United’s title successes last season, Mourinho will be eager to bag this one, given it is of a higher pedigree. For him, it is building a winning mentality ahead of his second season. Championships are won by talent and belief. He has ample talent at his disposal and a fan base that believes in his magical powers. He needs to instill that same belief in his squad and it comes from winning every trophy in their way.

Mourinho knows that more will be expected from his team this season. His challenge will be to live up to those expectations. He had one year to assess and rebuild. With a big check book, he has mostly received what he asked for. A sophomore slump will be disastrous for his reputation and for the club.

 

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