Jose Mourinho driving Manchester United forward despite Sevilla setback

Following Manchester United’s disastrous exit from the Champions League, Jose Mourinho came under fire from all corners. The performance validated all the flaws his critics had been harping on and frankly he deserved the criticism. The team’s performance over two legs against Sevilla was insipid. United were unimaginative in attack. Defensively only David De Gea’s first leg heroics saved them from a more embarrassing scoreline.

Despite considerable spending in the transfer market the squad still wasn’t good enough to challenge for top honors. United was failing to progress under Mourinho. They were neither solid at the back or dynamic going forward. If this was the best United could muster two years into Mourinho’s tenure then was he the man for the job?

The criticism and second-guessing comes with the territory. When Manchester United get outclassed in a Champions League tie at Old Trafford by the fifth-place side in La Liga questions will be asked, justifiably so. However, the notion Mourinho’s reign has been a failure in which he has failed to improve the club since taking over doesn’t stand up to examination of the squad he inherited.

The former Chelsea manager took over a United side which had just lifted the FA Cup under Louis van Gaal. The cup run was a nice send-off for the Dutchman, but his two years at the club fell far short of expectations after significant expenditure. Van Gaal spent plenty of money, but few of his purchases, aside from Anthony Martial, were successes. Many, such as Angel Di Maria, turned into unmitigated disasters.

Under Van Gaal United lacked purpose in attack. The performances were drab and gave supporters little to cheer about. United scored just 49 goals in Van Gaal’s final league campaign.

Despite often controlling possession in matches the side simply looked devoid of ideas. They would spend entire halves or even full matches moving the ball side to side at a leisurely pace without even threatening to be incisive.

The less said about David Moyes’ year on the job before Van Gaal the better.

Manchester United were short on quality and athleticism. They had no clear identity due to a scattergun approach in the transfer market without focus or long-term vision.

Mourinho, just like his predecessors in the post-Ferguson era, has splashed the cash. In stark contrast to van Gaal and Moyes though, his additions have largely improved the standard of the squad’s quality. More importantly, they’ve addressed areas of need.

United lacked quality in attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was brought in on a free transfer as a temporary solution before signing a prolific 24-year-old striker in Romelu Lukaku. One of Mourinho’s few transfer duds in Henrikh Mkhitaryan was swapped for Alexis Sanchez. Deadwood like Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney were moved on — the latter a delicate situation with a club legend which Mourinho navigated adroitly.

The midfield was aging and lacked mobility. In came Paul Pogba from Juventus. Though he has struggled mightily to find form of late, the Frenchman has largely been excellent for United over his two years at the club. It’s a matter of when, not if, he comes good again. At just 24 years old the future remains bright. Pogba’s silk was complemented with the addition of Nemanja Matic’s steel and experience last summer.

Central defense has been strengthened with the additions of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof. Bailly has been United’s best defender and among the best in the league when healthy. Lindelof began his time in England in poor fashion highlighted by a disastrous performance against Huddersfield Town. He has improved since and showed glimpses of the potential which convinced Mourinho to bring him to Old Trafford in United’s win against Chelsea.

And contrary to the popular narrative there has been noticeable progress on the pitch. In Mourinho’s first season United added two major pieces of silverware, winning the League Cup and Europa League — the latter delivering direct qualification to the Champions League group stage.

Now, in his 2nd season, United sit on 65 points after 30 matches, good for 2nd in the table, and well on pace to notch over 80 points. Their best points haul in the 3 seasons after Ferguson’s retirement and Mourinho’s appointment was 70 points.

United currently have a +35 goal difference with the second stingiest defense in the league. Their previous best mark in the post-Ferguson era was +25 which Mourinho matched in his first season.

Unfortunately. Manchester City’s domestic dominance has overshadowed and skewed the lens through which United’s progress has been judged. However, Mourinho didn’t inherit a side with the world-class attacking talent in place at City’s disposal. Despite finishing level on points the year before he arrived, the reality is United were far off the level of their city rivals.

Making up that gap domestically, and to the top clubs around Europe, has been Mourinho’s target since taking over. Much has been made of his activity in the transfer market to close that divide, but what he hasn’t received nearly enough credit for is his willingness to look internally, to the academy, for solutions.

His poor record at promoting, developing and trusting youth was used as a stick to beat him with when he took the United job. Contrastingly, this was noted as a strength of rivals like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. There was much concern Marcus Rashford’s development would be stunted and that Jesse Lingard would be on his way out of the club. The odds of unestablished academy players being promoted and given chances in the first team were deemed non-existent.

Two years on and those concerns look to have been unwarranted. Rashford has featured more than any United player during that time and been backed by the manager even during runs of poor form.

Lingard first earned the manager’s trust through his graft last year. This year he has rewarded Mourinho’s belief in him with a double-digit goal return filled with an array of highlight-worthy wonder goals anybody would be proud of.

Perhaps the biggest feather in Mourinho’s cap as far as trusting youth has been his promotion and continued inclusion of Scott McTominay. An unheralded academy product, McTominay featured early on in the season during League Cup matches. It didn’t seem he was destined to breakthrough into the first team on a meaningful level, at least not this season.

However, Pogba’s struggles with form and injury as well as long-term injuries to Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini opened the door for him. McTominay performed admirably in a league match at home match against Brighton — perhaps appropriately on the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster — and earned plaudits from Mourinho for his performance and attitude.

The manager continued to show faith in him as McTominay was selected in the starting XI of the first leg of United’s Champions League tie in Seville over Pogba. He was subsequently started home matches against Chelsea and Liverpool as well. McTominay’s unexpected rise and fast track into the first team has shown that the pathway academy players into the first team under the Portuguese is alive and well.

Manchester United are still not good enough in quality or mentality, the latter which Mourinho has been openly critical of his players for. They need to strengthen their fullback options, add an experienced central defender, two quality midfield players and bin off the remaining deadwood from previous regimes.

That’s not to suggest Mourinho is beyond reproach. He’s often too cautious in his approach. De Gea has saved the team more than should be the case. He has struggled to get the best out of United’s best attacking talents and rarely has he been able to do so in unison. Still, that he has much work yet to do despite spending £300 million while hoping ex wingers-turned-fullbacks Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia can hold off Father Time speaks to the size of the task he faced.

At times the process has been painful. Exiting the Champions League to opposition who, on paper, should stand no chance was a frustrating experience. Failing to exert dominance and control over lesser teams has cost the team points and results on several occasions.

The future is bright for Manchester United though, more than it has been at any point since Ferguson’s departure. After this summer Mourinho will have no excuses not to truly challenge for the league.

No matter his fate come the end of next season the progress he has overseen is unquestionable. When he leaves, whenever that may be, he will have left the squad in a much better place than the one he inherited, complete with youth, experience and quality.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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