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Can Manchester United mount a title challenge next season?

Terms as binary as success or failure would be too simplistic to describe Manchester United’s 2016/17 campaign.

Having aimed for the title after a summer of heavy spending, a sixth-place finish cannot be considered successful. Equally, winning two trophies and qualifying for the Champions League cannot be considered failure.

The most accurate summary would be steady progress. Though the ultimate glory hasn’t come, the campaign provided a strong indication that it will, with a vast improvement in performance levels. 78% of their league wins according to soccerstats.com came by two or more goals, a higher percentage than any side in the top six, when the same figure had been 37% the year before.

They only lost five games, the same number as Chelsea and in nine of the 15 they drew, the opposing goalkeeper was a stand-out performer. This suggests their general performance levels are close to that of a team that can win the Premier League title, as they are 100/30 with betway.com to do so next season (odds correct as of 28/06).

The team is creating more chances than it ever looked likely to under Louis van Gaal, whilst retaining the defensive steal shown under the Dutchman. Thanks to the commanding performances of summer signing Eric Bailly, who was partnered with a variety of other centre-backs, United conceded just 29 goals. In doing so, they became one of two teams to ship less than 30 in one league campaign since Jose Mourinho’s first season in his second spell at Chelsea.

That year, he built a sturdy back four of Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Cesar Azpilicueta, with defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic joining in January. The only thing missing was a cutting edge in front of goal that would help his side put away the lesser teams – sound familiar?

The man to provide that cutting edge for the Red Devils, as Diego Costa did for Mourinho’s old employers, could be Alvaro Morata. The Real Madrid forward is 1/4 for a move to Old Trafford (as of 28th June) and brings a wide array of qualities.

Though Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 17 Premier League goals last year and had a good individual campaign, he also had his limitations in terms of mobility. Morata was similarly clinical last season, but he is also younger, with more long-term potential and more versatility. He has experience playing as a wide forward and is therefore comfortable roaming into different areas. The Spaniard is good in the air and can hold the ball up, yet is also reasonably quick, works hard and is a clever operator off the ball. He is a complete striker, one who may finish off Jose Mourinho’s jigsaw.

Another dynamic performer likely to sign is Ivan Perisic. The Croat is a powerful runner, capable of cutting inside from the wing or taking on his full-back directly, with 11 goals and eight assists in Serie A last term. Though he is not the star name whom fans dream about, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Big name players tend to have thrived playing in a system that frees them from defensive responsibility and exposes their individual qualities. Those types of players need to be allied with more modest performers who work hard out of possession and create space with their runs off the ball. Perisic is known for his strength and shrewdness in pressing, using his body aggressively to force opposing players into a direction that can force bad passes or mistakes. Mourinho loves that type of player and it is imperative that the board backs his blueprint, which is proven to deliver trophies, even if his requested signings aren’t as marketable as Paul Pogba.

The Frenchman divided opinion last term, his critics suggesting more of a goal threat should be expected from an attack-minded, £89 million player. Given that his lofty value was influenced partly by shirt-selling potential, it seems fair to detach that figure from our judgement of his performances. Though he has not finished off attacking moves as some might have hoped, he is responsible for improvements in the construction of them.

Under Van Gaal, Manchester United played a lot of sideways passes which made it harder for them to create openings in the final third. Every time Pogba picks up the ball, he attempts to run with it and pass forward. Criticisms of him being a luxury player are also unfair. He makes 1.8 tackles per game (WhoScored) in the Premier League – only five attack-minded midfielders make more.

Pogba is likely to move up another level next season. With better finishing and perhaps a sprinkling of extra fortune, so will Manchester United.

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