Paul Pogba. Jesse Lingard. Romelu Lukaku. Marouane Fellaini. Ashley Young. All five of these players had World Cup campaigns that were at the least very good and at best exceptional. All three of them return to Old Trafford, where they are joined by others who either surpassed expectations in Russia, such as Sweden’s Victor Lindelof, or maintained their fine reputations, such as Serbia’s Nemanja Matic. Why, then, are Manchester United fans anxious about the approaching season? And more importantly, what can be done to address those concerns?
The anxiety stems in part from the fact that Liverpool, United’s bitter rivals, have added immediate and outstanding upgrades in areas where they lacked a little last season, bringing in a new goalkeeper (Alisson, from Roma) and a new central midfielder (Naby Keita, from RB Leipzig) whom many consider to be among the world’s best. Yet most of the concerns are closer to home. In particular: how can United get their attack firing, a systemic problem last season that stemmed from failing to get the ball forward quickly enough?
The answer to that may already be in their squad. A centre-back partnership of Eric Bailly — who has now had the benefit of several months of recuperation — and Lindelof now looks like United’s best option. The Swede was very good this summer in Russia and should have done enough in the eyes of Jose Mourinho, who was a pundit at the tournament, to supplant Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in the United lineup. It has taken Lindelof some time to settle in at Old Trafford, but his ability has never been in dispute. He and Bailly, at their best, offer a promptness, precision and ambition of passing that Jones and Smalling do not. With their swift and accurate distribution from the back, United should benefit by getting attacks started faster.
It looks as though United will begin the season with a midfield axis of Pogba and Matic, but France’s World Cup has shown that Pogba needs a more dynamic partner alongside him to flourish. Neither Fred nor Ander Herrera are N’Golo Kante — nobody is — but, at least in rotation, they are options to help bring the best from him. Then there’s Pogba, returning from a World Cup where he showed all of his qualities to best effect. That’s an exciting prospect and a situation whose benefits United are soon to reap.
The options at full-back are satisfactory rather than thrilling, with Ashley Young ahead of Luke Shaw on the left and Antonio Valencia with an excellent deputy in Diogo Dalot. There is still a sense, though, that United need one more attacker, preferably on the right wing. Elsewhere, they have the talent.
The real challenge lies with Mourinho. He should be utterly buoyant at present — Fellaini and Young are players in whom he had surprising faith, and who have repaid it with their fine form this summer. Lingard, Pogba and Lukaku have proven their brilliance on the biggest stage. Yet Mourinho, instead of riding this tidal wave of optimism, has cut a despondent figure of late. He seems busy managing and minimising expectations, questioning whether Pogba can focus on the job at club level.
This preseason should be a clean slate — an opportunity to re-engage Anthony Martial, who sadly looks to be on his way out of the door, and to talk up his team’s title chances. These may merely seem like words, but being bullish matters. Perhaps, though — and this is only a suspicion — the excellent performances of his players at the World Cup have put further pressure on Mourinho, because they have caused others to ask him why they do not deliver collectively for their club.
Faced with that pressure, he seems to have retreated into a defensive position — but if United are to succeed this year he probably needs to emerge from it, and quickly so.