So the axe has finally fallen on Louis Van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United. The veteran Dutch tactician has cut a disgruntled and cantankerous figure in recent months, as he put up a defiant front against the growing reports suggesting his job was in jeopardy.
Van Gaal can point the finger of blame at the English press, who he claims have “already sacked me for six months”. He might blame the expectations of United’s fans, as he asserts it is unreasonable of them to think their team should be top-four certainties, let alone title challengers.
But ultimately, Van Gaal has fallen short of his primary objectives; last weekend’s FA Cup win – United’s first majory trophy of the post-Ferguson era – will allow him to leave with a measure of success, but failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League, coupled with the drab playing style he has produced, has seen to it that van Gaal will be ushered into early retirement.
And it would appear that the worst kept secret in football over the last six months is finally out: José Mourinho will be Manchester United manager next season.
Mourinho certainly doesn’t come without his fair share of caveats, but the 53-year-old former Chelsea and Real Madrid boss is a born winner who will back himself to bring the glory days back to old Trafford; there’ll be no complaints about expectations being too high from the outspoken Portuguese.
The squad that Van Gaal will bequeath to his former assistant is one of reasonable quality, but there are several players whose confidence seems to have taken a hit over the past season or two. Mourinho will have to assess which players he feels still have something to offer, and which members of the squad need to be moved on.
The likes of Memphis Depay, Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin have all had disappointing campaigns, but Mourinho will recognise that each can be restored to a level where they can be important cogs in the machine he is looking to build.
Juan Mata will be nervous to discover whether he has a future under Mourinho, after the Portuguese determined that Mata lacked the tactical discipline to fit in at Chelsea, despite the fact that the Spaniard was voted the club’s player of the year two seasons running.
Although he hasn’t pulled up any trees in his time with United, Mata has been a solid performer with a respectable goals and assists output (10 goals and eight assists from 52 appearances this season). Mourinho will have more pressing squad management issues to resolve before deciding what to do with Mata, so the former Valencia player may yet be given time to prove his worth.
There are three players in particular, however, that Mourinho should be looking to ship out of Old Trafford if he is to re-shape the current United squad.
England defender Phil Jones joined the Red Devils from Blackburn Rovers in 2011, when he was just 19 years old. Hailed as a future England captain, the versatile player’s Old Trafford career has been hampered by injury. Jones has averaged fewer than 20 Premier League appearances across his five seasons as a United player, and when he has played, he has often been shifted around between full-back, centre-back and central-midfield.
Jones, now 24, has suffered as a consequence of his position-shifting and, five years on, it is hard to point to any area of his game which has markedly improved since his £16.5m move from Blackburn.
Despite only having 13 appearances to his name all season, and having been out of the first-team picture since an injury in January, Jones was named among United’s substitutes for the FA cup final ahead of more deserving candidates such as youngsters Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Mourinho should now call time on Jones’s United career in favour of utilising some on the promising young defenders beginning to emerge.
Marouane Fellaini has produced some commendable performances during United’s triumphant cup run. But the Belgian falls some way short of the technical ability expected of a standout United midfielder. For all his physicality and aerial prowess – which in itself is somewhat overstated – he lacks the quality of passing and touch needed in a top-class player. His propensity to violently swing his elbows around has cost United of late, after retrospective punishment saw the former Everton player suspended for the final three league matches of the season. With reported interest from Roma and AC Milan, Mourinho should look to cash-in on David Moyes’s first signing as United boss.
The major positive credited to Van Gaal during his United reign has been his commitment to playing young players from the club’s academy. Marcus Rashford and Jessie Lingard have thrived since being given their first-team debut by the former Ajax manager. But any credit van Gaal earnt for blooding youngsters has been undermined by his readiness to drop some of them as soon as a more senior player becomes available.
The case in point here is how Marcos Rojo was preferred to either Borthwick-Jackson or Fosu-Mensah at left-back. The Argentinian has been a fixture since his return from mid-season injury, despite some utterly horrific performances. Mourinho will surely have witnessed Rojo’s abject form and can have only concluded that the former Spartak Moscow player is surplus to requirements.
In terms on incomings, it would appear that Mourinho has already identified several potential signings. Star names such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, James Rodríguez and Raphaël Varane have all been mentioned in speculative newspaper articles.
Mourinho will have highlighted the need for a new centre-back, a creative midfielder, right-winger and striker. And with United ready to back him in the transfer window to the tune of £200 million, the former Porto boss will undoubtedly be sifting through agent Jorge Mendes’s list of clients and contacts as though it were his own personal shopping catalogue.
For United fans, with the arrival of a new manager, and a potential cast of incoming players, the off-season stands to provide more entertainment than they’ve seen on the pitch for some time.
About the author – Ryan Baldi
Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ printed on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musings on European football can be found here.