The aftermath of Manchester United’s 3-2 loss to West Ham at the Boleyn Ground was devastating. For the second time in three years, United wouldn’t be playing Champions League football. It was in the hands of the team too- Louis van Gaal’s suicidal tactics caused United again after Manchester City handed United the fourth Champions League place. The old Manchester United- a phrase which became an adage over the last three years- would’ve spoiled the party for West Ham United in their last game at their historic stadium, but the new Manchester United was secondary, not just in the celebrations but in the buildup and in the post-match, in the seemingly United-obsessed media.
Nobody cared about United anymore, except the Old Trafford faithful. Louis van Gaal disappeared from the club as fast as Jose Mourinho entered it. But that’s what makes United’s recent turnaround so spectacular. Now, the top four seems as likely as it did when Sir Alex Ferguson was in the Old Trafford dugout. But Mourinho still has to handle the indelible mark of the disastrous end of van Gaal’s tenure- Europa League football.
After United’s 2-0 win over Southampton in Mourinho’s Old Trafford debut, an interview with Paul Pogba was the highlighting moment. He said the club’s focus was to get back where they belong- in the Champions League and to win. United wants to win the Premier League and the Champions League, but also the Europa League, FA Cup, and the EFL Cup. However, these latter three aren’t the main goal at hand- they are merely very good pathways.
Mourinho has pointed out his use of a larger squad than usual on multiple occasions, simply because the side is challenging on all fronts. Assuming United is in the Champions League next season because it is the goal, the Europa League’s senior competition involves only two fewer games. The eventual goal is to challenge for the biggest treble- the FA Cup, the Premier League, and the Champions League, and to do this, successful or not, United will need a squad equally deep to this one. The only difference is, the Champions League takes more quality than the Europa League, and therefore the squad will need to be stronger.
The Europa League, FA Cup, and EFL cup should be used to actually develop this future treble-challenging squad because the current United isn’t there yet. The squad depth needs to be tested by Mourinho, and scrutinized at the highest level now, as opposed to later on. With 23 outfielders in the squad, now is the time to make sure United has 23 quality footballers to challenge for the next generation.
United’s current right-backs are Antonio Valencia, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and Matteo Darmian. There have been questions around Mourinho’s belief in Darmian, with reports saying Fabinho could replace him. If Darmian will be at United, Mourinho needs to be sure he can use the Italian. Also related is Michael Carrick’s likely retirement. Will Fosu-Mensah, supposedly the next midfield great, be ready to replace him in midfield next season? United’s EFL Cup draw against Northampton would be a good place to start to experiment, for example.
On the other side, Marcos Rojo is disastrous at left-back, and with Blind playing at centre-back, who is Luke Shaw’s backup? Will Cameron Borthwick-Jackson be, despite being loaned out to a Championship side? Could Joe Riley be promoted to play in both full-back positions? Louis van Gaal’s inability to prepare for Shaw’s injury last time proved to be a problem and Mourinho can’t afford to make the same mistake.
Daley Blind, Eric Bailly, and Chris Smalling should be in defence for a while yet, but will Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo be? If not, perhaps Ro-Shaun Williams and Axel Tuanzebe are fit replacements, but if not a centre-back to “bridge the eras” could come in next year. Mourinho needs to know what he wants so United can have the same quality of business next summer.
Moving forward, the depth is more pleasing and consists of younger footballers. Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin should earn their places, while it seems Marouane Fellaini already has. With Paul Pogba, United’s fifth should depend on whether or not the side needs a starting player next to the Frenchman. Up front, how long will Wayne Rooney remain through poor performances? How can Mourinho get the best out of Memphis? Mourinho wants to use Adnan Januzaj next season, Andreas Pereira will hopefully take his place in the squad eventually.
None of these questions should be answered during important matches. The Europa League’s low-risk, high reward nature will allow United to test squad depth. The worst players in United’s squad should be able to challenge for the Europa League. The competition is a step below United’s calibre, and Jose Mourinho’s job is to make sure of that. If the likes of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo aren’t cutting it in the Europa League, that is a sign they won’t be useful to the squad and are instead hindering United’s chances.
If United wants to challenge on all fronts next season, this season needs to be a time for learning. The ultimate goal, building a side of 23 capable outfield players capable of winning the Champions League, can be adequately tested at the lower-tier level; the Europa League. Winning the Europa League would be a bonus, but United’s progress in the Champions League could be accelerated this season, and given the choice, almost everyone would choose the latter option.