We don’t like talking about seasons of transition but this year has probably been a transition between two era’s, that of Van Gaal and Mourinho. United fans might sing about Jose getting United to play the way they should but he hasn’t truly got United playing the way he would like simply because he probably doesn’t have the playing resources he would chose to do that at this time; plenty of features of a Van Gaal squad and a Van Gaal way of playing remain.

We will talk about tactical changes in part 3 of our season review but it is noticeable when looking at the squad player by player that we are somewhere between where Jose found the squad and where he wants it to be. That is demonstrated by a couple of features. Firstly there are less players to consider now. Jose has moved players on and hasn’t yet replaced them. Secondly certain areas of the squad are a little thin, others over staffed.

Given all this United have still had a good season on the pitch, and that has engendered a feeling of optimism amongst the fans. We have drawn too many games , but we are hard to beat and have been successful winning two major trophy. Not bad given a squad in transition, a transition which will no doubt continue over the summer.

Goalkeepers

De Gea is still United’s number one with Romero as the understudy. Jose has managed his resources well though using Romero in Cup games which has ensured that when needed for the odd league game he has been match sharp. Will De Gea finally leave for Real Madrid? We hope not, but if he did would United sign an understudy and promote Romero or look to sign a new first choice keeper?

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David De Gea

David de Gea has again been a consistent performer to a very high level. When he first joined the club he improved season on season; the last few years he has been consistent at about the same level. De Gea has become a World Class performer and an excellent shot stopper. His weaknesses are his inability to communicate well with his defence, command his area and his distribution. Can he improve in those areas?

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Sergio Romero

Romero has been a reliable keeper when called upon. Can he step up as the new first choice should De Gea leave and if United see him continuing as the understudy will he be prepared to accept that role indefinitely? At www.manutdtactics.com we always feel that the test of a genuinely top class keeper is that he makes a significant number of saves that he really shouldn’t be able to make whilst making all those that he should make. Romero makes those he should make but doesn’t make that many he has no right to pull off.

Defence

United’s defensive record this season has been good with only 29 league goals conceded, (the league’s 2nd lowest total). This was a big part of achieving that long unbeaten league run. The defence still feels like it is a weakness however.

The defence as a whole feels as if it is greater than the sum of its individual parts and of course you defend as a unit so that is all good. This is a bit of a contradiction though as you still feel that United need to strengthen here, certainly at centre back and possibly at left back. You can’t help but feel that with better individuals in key positions the whole would be even stronger giving those further forward more of a sound foundation from which to build. United have a lot of defenders, which is good because many of them seem injury prone so some less injury prone players in this department may allow a re-balancing across the whole squad.

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Phil Jones

This has been another disappointing season for Phil Jones and another season plagued by injury. One has always felt that whilst some of Jones’s injuries are down to bad luck others are down to his recklessness and bad decision making. He has often been too brave for his own good and maybe his physiology doesn’t suit the way he plays.

Whether this is the case or not his injuries have certainly stifled his development and he has not become the player he promised he might become at one stage in his career. For a number of years now we have suspected that the forthcoming season was a big one where he needed to step up, he hasn’t and time marches on. This feels like it might be the end of the road for Jones at United.

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Chris Smalling

If Jones hasn’t developed Smalling seems to have regressed after two seasons under Van Gaal where he was one of United’s most improved players. Another player who has had a few injuries this year but then all but the sturdiest will pick up injuries playing at centre-back. When he has been in the team he has been inconsistent. For a while he appeared to be developing a reasonable partnership with Rojo but then as the season has worn on his careless positioning and lack of alertness, particularly on incoming crosses has seen him found out at key moments.

If Jose is brave enough to remove two centre-backs in a single transfer window then Smalling could be another player sitting close to the Old Trafford exit door.

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Marcos Rojo

Marcos Rojo is a player who has improved significantly as the season has progressed. Early in the season he was rightly criticised for a number of rash challenges and he will always be a player who loves a physical encounter. That is no bad thing in a centre-back but he needs to develop greater discipline. That he has done that is a credit to his application and was evident in the game at Old Trafford against Chelsea when he dealt with Costa and his provocation without conceding a yard.

He can also do a job at left back if called upon but like others doesn’t seem to offer enough going forward in that position for Jose’s liking. He needs to continue to improve especially if United as expected strengthen in the centre-back position over the summer.

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Eric Bailly

It has been a very good debut season for Eric Bailly at Old Trafford. Strong, quick and alert; he has been a robust and usually reliable player who clearly has very great potential. He can be a little rash and perhaps needs to work on his decision making but his pace is a useful tool in getting himself out of a few situations until that aspect of his game has developed fully.

His debut season is all the more impressive given that he was away at the African Cup of Nations in the middle of the season and has had to try and forge partnerships with an ever-changing cast of defenders around him. You can easily see Bailly being a fixture in the United defence for many years to come.

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Daley Blind

Jose doesn’t seem to fancy Blind as a midfield player so we have included him in the defenders section. As a centre-back he will always lack pace and he isn’t the most physical player but he often manages to compensate for that with his reading and anticipation. One still has concerns about his ability to cope with top class quick forwards but he has often done a very good job at centre-back when necessary. He was excellent in the Europa League final when it mattered most.

Mourinho has also used Blind as a left back and whilst you might think he would struggle for pace there too he hasn’t been exposed very often. Again positioning and anticipation allow him to fit in here. What Blind can offer whether from fullback or centre-back is the ability to pick and deliver a searching forward pass. His problem is that Jose’s strategies usually rely on fullbacks getting forward to provide width in attack and for that you need pace. Whether he can hold down a regular starting place in the long term he is still a very useful player to have around.

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Luke Shaw

It has been another disappointing season for Shaw and one that has ended in another disappointing injury. Shaw has received a fair amount of criticism from the manager for his over caution and his lack of judgement about when to defend and when to get forward; so critical to modern fullback play. Jose likes a fullback who will get forward to give his side attacking width and Shaw hasn’t done that. We at www.manutdtactics.com feel that this is a hangover from his horrific injury last season. He was injured of course whilst making a surging run forward, something he now seems reluctant to do.

This is a great shame as Shaw is quick and talented. He has all the tools to be an excellent fullback for United for years to come and it would be a shame if United cannot help him get back to where he was before his injury. Will Jose have the patience with him?

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Matteo Darmian

Darmian is usually a steady reliable defender but one who likes Shaw is often reluctant to get forward. He has also been exposed defensively at times when a lack of concentration seems to undermine his defensive efforts, he just seems to go to sleep at key moments. When he is focused and concentrated on his game he is excellent in his defensive game; he is another player who excelled when it mattered in Stockholm and had an excellent game in the home league game playing as a third centre back against Chelsea.

If he can play like that more often, rather than just in the big games where everyone is focused then he would be an excellent defender for the club. Whether he can develop a reliable attacking side to his game is another issue. His reluctance to attack may have suited Van Gaal, we aren’t so sure it will suit Jose.

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Antonio Valencia

Valencia has had an excellent season to the extent that Jose Mourinho has lauded him as the best right-back in the world. That is perhaps overstating things but it is hardly surprising that Mourinho likes him so much; he is exactly his sort of fullback. A converted winger he naturally has an inclination to get forward and create overlaps but his judgement about when to do that is what makes him such an excellent attacking fullback. The defensive side of his game has also improved since he has reverted to a deeper role and he has begun to develop a strong understanding with Bailly.

As a winger Valencia was always a player who would beat a man with momentum rather than a trick, he can’t beat a player from a standing start so if the ball is slow to reach him and he has already reached a high position he will usually recycle possession back inside. He needs early ball to run onto. Starting from deeper he has that opportunity more often as an advancing fullback than he did as a more conventional winger. Pogba take note; early switch required.

The thing he really needs to work on is his crossing delivery which is not at the level of the rest of his game. All too often his crosses fail to pick somebody out. When he does Valencia is one of our most potent attacking weapons.

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Tim Fosu-Mensah

A player who burst onto the scene last season, this year chances have been limited. Jose clearly doesn’t think that he is quite ready yet with the player not getting much opportunity to play until late in the season as Jose rested players with Stockholm in mind. As such it is difficult to assess progress or begin to judge his best role. It has probably been a frustrating year for the youngster.

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Ashley Young

Young is now undoubtedly a squad player. Jose likes Young, probably because he hasn’t complained about this and because when called upon in a variety of positions he has always reliably done a good job. Good rather than great as his contributions don’t stand out. He is however an experienced player who knows the game and how to do the things necessary to win.

One can’t help but think however that he may leave the club now as a consequence of his diminishing opportunities to play especially if Jose strengthens his squad over the summer.

Midfield

A couple of midfield players (Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin) left the club during the course of the season leaving this area of the squad a little threadbare. That occasionally resulted in Wayne Rooney being allocated a midfield role, something that at the start of the season Jose Mourinho indicated he did not favour. Needs must but what this suggests is that United will draft in additional midfield players this summer, whether by purchase or by promotion from the youth ranks.

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Michael Carrick

For so long a key player in our midfield, that no longer seems to be the case. Opinion has always been divided amongst fans about Carrick although not here at www.manutdtactics.com. Carrick has never been the quickest player and has slowed down over the last couple of years but he is still an intelligent player and still has an excellent passing range. He also still has the ability to read the game, operating from the deep as a holding midfield player he senses danger early and screens the defence effectively. He did have a run in the side in the middle of the season but Jose has used him sparingly for most of the year bringing him on late in games almost as an insurance policy to close out a result.

Carrick has been given a year’s extension to his contract so will still be a part of things for at least another year. A keen student of the game there are rumours that he will be offered a coaching role at the club thereafter.

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Ander Herrera

Herrera is a very popular player. He is a busy player, a box to box midfielder whom Jose and other United managers have given a variety of midfield specialist roles. He is best suited to a role in a three man midfield where he can operate as one of the advanced midfield players or the holding role. It is in the holding role where he has improved significantly this year. He operated there a few times under Van Gaal and teams often played around him exploiting his busy energetic all action performance to manoeuvre him out of position and exploit space behind him. Jose has preached discipline and this doesn’t happen as often now.

As stated Herrera is a busy player and his workload clearly endears him to Jose. He has a good rather than great passing range and he is a good student of the game who reads the game well and will follow a tactical game plan, (another factor which endears him to the management). Herrera’s style is a good counterpoint to Paul Pogba’s more languid expression. More of the same next year please.

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Paul Pogba

You either get Paul Pogba or you don’t. This applies to fans, journalists and pundits; the judgement of many has been clouded by the fee United paid for him which has led many to repeatedly raise the question of whether he was worth the money?

Our position is simple. Pogba is the player United should be building their team around for years to come. A natural talent; he is confident, strong with probably the best passing range at the club. People are deceived by his languid style but this draws people in, they bounce off him and then he releases a pass to somebody who is in space as a consequence of him holding the ball. Like all the truly great players he seems to have more time.

The view that he is lazy also doesn’t stand up to close analysis. This year he has worked hard at his game and adapted to United’s current needs. At Juventus he operated in a generally more advanced position where he could give a freer rein to his attacking talents, under Jose he has been asked to operate in a deeper position and so has had to learn some defensive discipline. He has begun to do that and this aspect of his game has improved.

United as a team have an issue with goal scoring and many have questioned why he is not contributing more. He has never been a natural goal scoring midfielder but a player who creates for other. The problem has been the others. Pogba has completed more passes and more forward passes than any other Premier League midfield player this season and in so doing has created more goal scoring chances than any other midfield player. It isn’t his fault that his teammates haven’t taken them.

Jose has to build a team to exploit Pogba’s talents to the maximum.

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Marouane Fellaini

Marouane is another player whom Jose seems to love and on May 24th in Stockholm www.manutdtactics.com loved him too. That game suited Fellaini as he was given a role within his talent range and executed it to perfection. That is great credit to him and to the manager for the manager has shrewdly realised that Fellaini can make a very valuable contribution if he is used appropriately in line with his skill set.

Most fans have been guilty of criticising Fellaini and labelling him in a category of “not a United player”. Fellaini is not quick, he is a little clumsy and has a limited passing range. He looks awkward. Played close to his own goal these issues can make him a liability but played high up the pitch he has a nuisance value both in terms of restricting an opponent and creatively. He demonstrated both these aspects of his game in Stockholm whether tracking and restricting Schone or bringing down a long pass delivered from United’s defensive third and feeding the likes of Mata or Pogba. Jose has got the best out of him and he is a useful player to have around although for most he will probably never be a first choice midfield starter.

Forwards

You could make the case that a number of the players listed here as forwards are advanced midfield players. The categorization doesn’t really matter but our thinking is that the players included are the squads more attacking players who although they may have to make some defensive contribution when we lose the ball are in the squad more for their attacking prowess than their defensive prowess. We would say the opposite about defenders and expect true midfield players to have a more balanced skill set.

The problem for our forwards this season is that they haven’t collectively scored nearly enough goals. Why? We will look at that in more detail in our tactical overview piece but in brief this isn’t just about profligacy when chances have been created. Our approach and combination play in the final third, the physical robustness of these players, their first touch and our use of changes of pace as well as shooting accuracy have been found wanting.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The stand out player in terms of goals scored. Big and strong he has presented opposition centre backs with a physical problem that in recent years United haven’t been able to pose. Zlatan is also very skilful and like Pogba has time on the ball because he cannot be bullied out of it. He isn’t as quick as he may once have been and is probably past his best now but he is still a very good player.

One thing that he has offered and a thing we should not underestimate is a winning mentality. He has character in spades, a larger than life figure that lifts those around him giving the whole club a renewed sense of belief. He is in his own words “a lion”.

Injury aside though it wasn’t clear where he fits into the side not just as it is but in terms of future development. As the season wore on it was clear that he was becoming less mobile than he was in the autumn. He isn’t the quickest he doesn’t provide the option of a run in behind and so perhaps doesn’t stretch the opposition back towards their goal creating space for others and despite the fact he scored 28 goals in all competitions he missed an awful lot of chances. It wasn’t then a big surprise when United announced that they would not be retaining his services.

Jose likes a single big strong centre forward and Zlatan has been that this year; United now need to sign an alternative. We have to say a big thank you to Zlatan his contribution this year and to our direction of development has been immense.

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Marcus Rashford

After bursting onto the scene last year Rashford’s opportunities to shine have been relatively limited this time around. He is quick and prepared to take people on but he doesn’t have the physical robustness that Jose looks for in a central striker. He may develop that but this year this has seen him pushed into a wide area from where he can still be very effective. The injury to Ibrahimovic late in the season saw his given more chances in the centre but this only seemed to highlight that he needs more match time to learn how to mix things up a little (the attacking side of his game against Ajax was a little too obvious).

Despite all this Rashford is a shining light that will undoubtedly be a star in years to come. It has been a season of consolidation maybe but a player whom Mourinho likes and one with a big future at the club.

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Juan Mata

Everyone assumed Mata wouldn’t fit into Mourinho’s thinking and everyone has been proved wrong. He provides intelligence in the final third that others often seem to lack. He isn’t quick, often doesn’t do things quickly either and his movement inside from the right is often predictable. Despite this he is an excellent footballer. He is a calm player who is confident in possession; perhaps the player with the best first touch of all our players operating in the final third of the pitch. He has great vision and is another player of whom you suspect we would get far more with better more imaginative players around him.

What we have seen this season from Mata is a player adapting specifically to the managers requirements. He contributes far more now to the overall team strategy, especially in defensive terms than he did in the past. It’s just that lack of pace over the ground that is a long term concern.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Henrikh ended the season on a high with his goal in the Europa League final, but in truth it has been a mixed first season at United. In some games he has been excellent and has seemed to excel most notably in European games. In other games he has been almost anonymous. Quick and strong he started the season reasonably well although not well enough for Jose who determined not to pick him for a while. In his first few games he seemed to have the confidence and first touch required to find and operate in pockets of space between the lines, but he also seemed to want longer on the ball than Premiership teams will allow. That’s a common failing of players who have joined the English league from abroad but may be why he has looked so much more effective in the Europa league.

The worrying thing however is that as he has begun to overcome that issue in domestic games his first touch has deteriorated, almost as if he has caught this disease form those around him in the side. Like others he also doesn’t seem to be on the same wavelength as some of his attacking teammates. He is a player with great potential who hopefully will kick on next year.

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Jesse Lingard

Lingard is a conundrum. United through and through he works hard and his movement off the ball is excellent making space for others or finding pockets of space for himself, (in fact that aspect of his game is potentially world class). He is the least predictable of United’s final third players and that is a significant plus point, but his first touch is poor and he is too easily knocked off the ball. On the ball his combination play with those around him is inconsistent, at one moment poor, at other superb.

His shooting is often disappointing, unless he is playing in a cup final at Wembley of course. Everyone likes Lingard and he is a good player to have around but is he good enough to sustain a long term playing career at United? If Jose raises standards then he will have to improve aspects of his game to keep up. Can he do that? That is his challenge.

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Wayne Rooney

Despite the occasional sulk and twice asking for a transfer away from United Wayne Rooney has been an excellent servant on the pitch for over ten years. His time at the club is probably coming to an end now and he may leave the club this summer and as United’s record goal scorer.

This year his contribution has usually been peripheral, increasingly so as the season has progressed. Clearly slower than he was his game has also lost an edge; the fire seems to have gone from his belly. We’d prefer to remember Rooney as he was in his prime and thank him for his contribution over the years. United would probably not have won as much as they have won in the last ten years or so without him.

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Anthony Martial

Martial is another conundrum. He had an excellent first year last year but has been in and out of the side this year and has struggled for the level of performance we had come to expect in his debut season. Rumours abound that Jose doesn’t fancy him. Quick and direct with an eye for goal he is another player who doesn’t fit the Mourinho profile for a central striker. That has meant that he too has been pushed out wide from where his attempts to cut inside with an eye for goal have at times been too predictable. He has exhibited the common failing of a poor first touch and as with others his combination play has not been good.

Will he get a further chance next season? We suspect this depends upon whether Jose brings alternatives to the club in the summer, but we wouldn’t expect him to leave.