Group Stage Fan Preview: Manchester United

As Manchester United enter the dreaded third season of Jose Mourinho’s reign, much remains up in the air as to how they will perform this season. Early losses to Brighton and Spurs had fans diagnosing third season syndrome with extreme immediacy. The rumors of an unsettled Pogba, the revival of Luke Shaw, and the impasse between the manager and Anthony Martial, the 2015 Golden Boy recipient, have left hardcore Devils with mixed feelings. Marcus Rashford was sent off for a rash headbutt against Burnley, David de Gea is slowly returning to top form, and Victor Lindelöf has continued to prove his worth in the backline.

Jose Mourinho seems insistent on sticking to a 4-3-3, maintaining a core set of starters while rotating amongst some of the positions. Luke Shaw looked prepared to become a part of that core with his superb early season form, but a recent head injury against Spain over the international break may work against his luck. Lukaku and Sanchez are likely to be mainstays for the Portuguese, but the right winger spot remains up for grabs. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial are all competing for the slot, but Mourinho will likely resort to continual rotation as the season progresses. Matic and Pogba leave only one slot in the midfield three up for grabs, and competitors include Herrera, Fellaini, and new man Fred.

As a typical Mourinho team, United will be defined by defensive solidity. Despite early games where they have conceded three goals, the backline looks to be set for another year of clean sheets. The aforementioned de Gea, coming off a poor showing for Spain at the World Cup, has began to look his old self again, as seen by his save against Rashford over the international break. Luke Shaw has been the shock of the year, producing a level of form fans haven’t seen out of him before. His United career seemed destined to failure after last season, with Mourinho publicly criticizing him whenever he had the chance to do so. A match-winner in the first game of the season has been the highlight, but his bombing runs up the left flank, combined with an equal effort to track back and stop attacks, have displayed the potential he still holds. A big question remains about the right back spot, which will likely be retained by Antonio Valencia. The 33-year-old Ecuadorian is still main man, but summer signing Diogo Dalot will likely contest for that title. The teenager will be eased into the first team once he is 100% fit, but it remains to be seen how he will perform for the side.

In midfield, Matic has looked like retaining past season’s form, while Pogba has shown glimpses of his World Cup form so far. However, he hasn’t dominated games as he should, leaving much to be desired with cynical fans. With Barcelona rumors circulating in the press, uncertainty looms around the Frenchman. New signing Fred has looked decent when deployed by Mourinho but hasn’t provided anything special as of yet. It remains to be seen whether the Brazilian can stake out a place in the starting eleven.

The front is an interesting dilemma. Romelu Lukaku, off the back of a great World Cup for Belgium, can give you consistent performances, but his finishing has been poor to kick off the campaign. Alexis is a big question mark considering his form last year. His ball retention and decision making in the final third have been uncanny for a player of his caliber, and at this point Arsenal have gotten the most out of his transfer.

Manchester United now sit in a group with Juventus, Valencia, and Young Boys. The English club is likely to go through in second place, with Juventus taking top spot. The Italian giants only managed to go out and snag former Red Devil Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer, strengthening an already formidable squad. Although the Portuguese star has gotten off to a rough start in Turin, he poses a massive threat in the Champions League. Young Boys are unlikely to pose a serious threat to any of the teams, while Valencia could prove a difficult opponent to beat at the Mestalla. Anything short of second place will be a massive disappointment for Mourinho’s men.

Manchester United hold the key to their own destiny in the Champions League. They hold sufficient depth to keep up with the rigor of midweek UCL games, and have the talent to go far in the competition. They have an experienced squad and are managed by a man who was had his fair share of success in European competition throughout his managerial career. They must avoid another Sevilla catastrophe this year, but it will be important for United to perform well in the group stage to inspire confidence for the later rounds. A realistic goal for the English side would be to win 12 points off Valencia and Young Boys, while potentially snagging a win or tie against Juventus at Old Trafford. I highly doubt Mourinho cares about their final point total – if it gets them to the next round, nothing else matters. As the Portuguese has said, it’s the results that matter. If United want to prove that their ascendancy is legitimate, the European playground would be the ideal place to announce their return. The Champions League is back, and so might Manchester United.

By: Brandon Duran

Photo: Getty