Year on year, prior to the football season’s start, there are players that fans feel will have to have good seasons in order for the club to enjoy any form of success. However there is often those that are expected to perform, and those that actually end up doing so, in some cases that can end up being the same player, but it often is not. From a Manchester United perspective, think Angel Di Maria in the 2014/15 season, or Juan Sebastian Veron in his two seasons at the club, on the other hand, think back to Darren Fletcher in 2008/09, Javier Hernandez’s breakthrough in 2010 and Park Ji-Sung every season he was at the club, often the hope in the bigger stars gets dashed and the dark horses come through. So whilst we hope and expect the likes of Smalling, Pogba, Martial and Ibrahimovic amongst arguably one or two others to be key to a good year, let’s take a look at some players that could well prove to be some of the actual difference makers in the upcoming season.
About to play in his eighth campaign with United, at 31 years old, ‘Tony’ Valencia looks set for something of a mini resurgence under Jose Mourinho. His assist for Ibrahimovic’s Community Shield winner built on the three assists he got against Galatasaray the week before and his manager’s comments at Wembley were telling, “probably last year Valencia, instead of crossing, Valencia gets down [the line] and plays a back pass.” Cautious and negative were words that could fairly be thrown at Valencia when judging him over the last few years, although they longer seem to be accurate words that can be squared at him if his pre-season form is anything to go by. He’s also decided to go back to more aerial crosses rather than the hit and hope approach which he reaping the rewards from.
Watching Valencia bomb up and down the right flank at the moment is reminiscent of his peak in the 2011/12 season where he and Wayne Rooney struck up a prolific understanding, with Valencia getting the most assists in a season he’d ever had and Rooney doing likewise for goals. He appears to be more settled in the right-back role now and if his positioning and concentration can catch up with his excellent defending one-on-one and his physical prowess then the question of United’s strongest right-back will have little debate. The space that he has to run into from deep as a fullback seems to suit his game and if he continues to be positive in his play he’ll reinstall the width and productivity of a right-hand side that hasn’t been reflective of a traditional Manchester United right flank for a while now. All being well, not only will he impress, but he’ll make sure that those in the middle, primarily Ibrahimovic, do too.
The signing of Eric Bailly was met with a resounding ‘who?’ by most fans when he joined as Mourinho’s first signing in June. However, it looks as though he could prove to be an inspired purchase, with his no-nonsense style that throws back to a certain Nemanja Vidic. The Ivorian has impressed in pre-season and it looks as though he’s set to be a starter come the beginning of the Premier League season. A man of the match performance against Leicester in which he kept Jamie Vardy quiet apart from his goal courtesy of a poor Fellaini back pass showed just how good he can be; he’s rash at times but committed and also composed on the ball for the most part, an attribute that is becoming increasingly necessary in the modern game for defenders.
It remains to be seen how he’ll do alongside Chris Smalling but you would expect them to be an overbearing force for opposition attacks. “So is Eric ready to come here and start performing from day one? I don’t know. It is a question mark but my job is to delete that question mark as soon as possible” is what Mourinho had to say about Bailly and that’s understandable considering he’s only 22 and has just over 70 appearances to his name. That question mark may be getting deleted sooner than most think however, if he can carry his impressive non-competitive form into the real fixtures then he could well be set to be the standout performer at centre back and the catalyst for a truly solid defence at Old Trafford once again.
A player that many thought would be on his way out of the club upon the announcement of Jose Mourinho, Jesse looks set to a key member of the squad at least and a valued player by the Portuguese. Keeping new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench for the Community Shield clash with Leicester showed how much Lingard has impressed the new staff at the club and he repaid the faith with a solo goal that he’ll remember for a long time. It may well have been the case that Mourinho favoured Lingard’s high work rate over Mkhitaryan’s guile against an overzealous Leicester City, which suggests that there could be plenty of games for the home-grown player depending on the opponent.
His performance in the Community Shield, however, shows that he has more to his game than being a mere workhorse; his ability to run at defenders and try things and fans can only hope that he’s as positive throughout the season as he was when he first made his breakthrough last year and was in the Leicester win. He also looks to be stronger and fitter than he was last season which will only help his cause. At 23, many think that his margin for improvement is minimal, however, he’s always been a late developer and it looks as though the club’s patience with him will bear fruit and he’s set for an even better season and an important role under Jose this year.