Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville has tipped the club to win the Premier League title under Jose Mourinho this season. The Sky Sports pundit, returning after a management stint with Valencia last season believes that it is United who has risen above their rivals this summer, leaving them behind. Mourinho has signed Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba so far this summer with the 41-year-old believing one again and the added arrogance of Ibrahimovic and Pogba could well be key to United dominating once again. Over the past three years, getting over the fact that United’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had retired, United struggles under the leadership of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, even under Ryan Giggs for a short period of time. The fear factor left Old Trafford and teams say United more as an injured animal rather than a raging beast.
The arrival of Mourinho this summer seems to have changed a few things. The Portuguese manager asked executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward for four players this summer, and all four are now United players, which has made a statement right away. Now United had signed some great players post-Ferguson in Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, but neither worked out with the latter struggling to adapt to a much tougher league after recovering from a serious knee injury – he also struggled at Chelsea last season, which underlined the fact it was more about him than the training regime he was part of. Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly, and Pogba are all top signings – three were household names last season with Bailly rising to fame at Villarreal and showing his true colours against Leicester City in the FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday, being named the Man of the Match. In his column published by Sky Sports, Neville said:
“In the last three or four years, Manchester United have lacked stature on the pitch, they have lacked arrogance and they have lacked the players who have the balls to be real Manchester United stars. In signing Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba they have players of stature and arrogance – in a good way – and, historically, United have always needed players with big personalities.
“Ibrahimovic is an important signing for Manchester United. They are not getting him in his peak or in his best years, but in the last two or three years the club has deteriorated in performance and also in entertainment, which is a fundamental at United. Now they have someone who can keep you on the edge of your seat week after week and deliver special moments. That is something that’s required at that club.”
At the time United signed Ibrahimovic, many suggested that it would effectively say to Marcus Rashford, who rose to fame last season, that he was not good enough and that United needed to find a striker that they could count on. That sort of negativity always seems to find its place, even though it is not asked for or actually needed. Many seem to forget to think about the pros, which is the most important thing. Rashford is a talent and has taken to his feet very well in his first season as a first team player. The importance of a player like Ibrahimovic in his career could be great for him. He would learn a lot and the Swede would teach him, as he has already said. That shows that despite Ibrahimovic having an ego, he is not selfish and will pass on his knowledge and help younger players become much better. Neville cover this by saying:
“I think he’ll help. When the ball goes into him it sticks and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and someone like Rashford will benefit from him being there. Young players tend to be more risky in their play and more experienced players offer more control and maturity. They know when to take a touch or when to lay the ball off first time. Rashford will learn about protecting the ball, about professionalism, about dealing with the pressure in a good way. Ibrahimovic will be a massive player for Manchester United, not necessarily in terms of his own performance but in terms of his aura and what United require from a personality.”
Back in the summer of 2012, Manchester United lost Paul Pogba to Juventus with just £800,000 compensation payable as the player was out of contract at Old Trafford, despite the fact United did offer the French midfielder a new contract to remain at the club. Over the past four years, Pogba has won four Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia trophies and two Supercoppa Italia – he was also a UEFA Champions League finalist in the 2014/15 season and a finalist in this summer’s European Championships held in his native France. Losing a player of Pogba’s calibre was devastating – as we saw his rise to fame in Italy, scoring some stunning goals and leaning his midfield role from the likes of Andrea Pirlo, one of the midfield masters of all time. Pogba was a player on Mourinho’s wish list this summer, and despite a protracted transfer saga, he arrived at the club at the start of the week, securing a world record transfer of £89 million, a lot of money, but well worth it based on the fact he’s 23, still has room to improve and is currently one of the best midfielders in Europe right now. Speaking about Pogba and the fact the Premier league has attracted a Grade-A player this summer, Neville said:
“Our league has struggled to entice Grade-A players and has struggled to keep hold of them because Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have taken most of them off us – so for Manchester United to get Paul Pogba is not only a big moment for United, but for the Premier League. He has got arrogance and believes in himself. He left Manchester United the first time around, despite being under pressure to stay, and it takes a lot to leave when you are wanted by Sir Alex Ferguson.
“You’ve got to have a level of arrogance to do that and some people would see it as a negative, but I see it as a positive. He’s got complete belief and he’ll come back in the same way. He knows the club and the city and he is a player of stature, belief and arrogance. He won’t go into any game thinking he is inferior. In the last two or three years, United have lacked stature and personality on the pitch but these new signings have that, which is important.”
Last season, Leicester City dominated to win the Premier League with Arsenal taking second place, Tottenham Hotspur in third and Manchester City pipping Manchester United into fourth place, albeit on goal difference. It has shown that the Premier League is a lot more competitive that other European leagues. In Spain, Barcelona won La Liga, with Real Madrid in second place, Atletico Madrid in third and in fourth place Villarreal, a massive void below the top three teams. You see the same thing in Germany, with Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund ten points adrift in second place and Bayer Leverkusen in third, 18 point adrift of Dortmund. In Italy, Juventus won Serie A with Napoli nine points adrift in second place, with Roma two points adrift of them. In fourth, Inter Milan – 13 points adrift of Roma. Across Europe, the same thing is happening. Many suggest the European leagues are much better than the Premier League, but surely competition is the key here, in England there is much more of it. In the last three seasons Leicester City, Chelsea and Manchester City have all won the league with City and United (twice) winning the three before that.
Over the past three years, United have lacked dominance in the league, finishing seventh, fourth and fifth following on from Ferguson’s last season in which United were the champions. Bringing Mourinho in as the manager may not have been popular with many at the time, but seeing what he has done so far will have won many over, myself included. With the arrivals of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola this summer, added to the threat of Jurgen Klopp and Ronald Koeman, United would need to bring in an experienced manager, which is what they have done. It was clear that things were not working for Van Gaal, despite him winning the Emirates FA Cup last season – ending United’s twelve-year drought in the domestic competition. Mourinho has won the Premier League three times in two management stints at Chelsea, winning more trophies at other clubs he has managed, including two UEFA Champions League trophies and a treble. Speaking about Mourinho, Neville, a clear admirer of the Portuguese, said:
“They have a manager with personality and stature. With those three people – and a couple of players who were already there – then there’s an arrogance back in the club and the city. There are players wearing that shirt who will stick their chests out – and that’s what Manchester United is all about.”
Looking back over the years that United have won the Premier League, thirteen times, there has always been a player a big personality – sometimes more than one. In the first five years of the Premier League alone, United won it four times and had the likes of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke then later having Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic moving up to more recently where they had Robin van Persie. United need that special player, something they have this season a plenty. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba can be those special players this season, adding something to the team to inspire their peers to drive the club to something special again. Over the last three years, despite still having the likes of Van Persie, Rooney, Ferdinand et al. United were not special – playing dull football and not being the team they once were. Van Gaal tried to bring that special feeling back with the likes of Falcao and Di Maria, but ot just did not work out for them. This season could be so much different, the last few summers, I have been filled with dread ahead of the new season, trying not to be negative and seeing what happens. This summer is much different, I have an excitement I have not had for a while and that makes me want the season to start quicker than it actually is. I am sure many of you feel the same, but also have reserved judgement based on what has happened over the past three seasons.