The Second Wave of Manchester United’s ‘Galacticos’

In the years preceding the summer of 2016, a major issue that was cited as contributing to Manchester United’s downfall was a lack of characters in the dressing room. The departure of vocal leaders such as Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, had a stark impact on the morale of the dressing room. However, in the summer of 2016, Manchester United continued their ‘Galactico’ transfer policy, in spite of its previous failure with Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao.

Jose Mourinho was appointed as manager, a charismatic and ego-driven manager, who could be seen as a managerial ‘Galactico’ signing. Following the arrival of the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba were the imminent arrivals, both of whom possessed the leadership qualities that were previously missing at the club. 

The signing of the Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was the first of Mourinho’s elite stars. The towering Swede arrived at Old Trafford with a sensational goal record. In his time at Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic netted 113 goals in 122 games. Furthermore, the self-titled ‘Lion’ had won league titles at five of his previous seven clubs. The CV of Ibrahimovic, combined with his infamous leadership skills, meant that the Swede was the ideal signing for a dejected and goal-deprived Manchester United squad.

Furthermore, the fact that Ibrahimovic arrived on a free transfer, meant that any qualms surrounding his age were counteracted. In spite of his ego-driven sentiment, Ibrahimovic didn’t disappoint. On his professional debut for the ‘Red Devils’, Ibrahimovic powered home a header at Wembley in the FA Community Shield, which proved to be the decisive goal for Manchester United.

Furthermore, Ibrahimovic began his league career for United in spectacular fashion. In his first two Premier League games, Ibrahimovic bagged three goals, including a spectacular long-range effort on his league debut. However, following his spectacular start, Ibrahimovic encountered a slight dry period for United, only scoring two goals in his next nine appearances.

In spite of his brief goal-scoring struggles, Ibrahimovic excelled in the following months. Following breaking his goal-scoring duck with two superb goals against Swansea City, Ibrahimovic went on to score an astonishing 20 goals in his next 20 games. In the midst of his astonishing goal-scoring streak, Ibrahimovic provided a vital last-minute equaliser against arch-rivals Liverpool, as well as propelling United’s UEFA Europa League progress by scoring a hat-trick against Saint-Etienne.

In spite of these vital goals from Ibrahimovic, his most memorable moment in a United shirt came against Southampton in the League Cup final. Not only did ‘Ibra’ fire United into the lead through a stupendous free kick, but he also scored an 87th-minute winner, almost single-handedly winning the silverware for United. But unfortunately for both the player and the club, the Swede’s season was about to end prematurely.

On the 20 April 2017 in a Europa League tie against Anderlecht, Ibrahimovic landed awkwardly from an aerial duel, and in the process acquired an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury. This devastating injury ended Ibrahimovic’s season and to a large extent his United career. While Ibrahimovic did extend his stay at United, the impact of his injury had taken a toll on the forward.

Following some brief cameo appearances in December 2017, Zlatan Ibrahimovic departed United for LA Galaxy. In spite of the devastating end to his United career, Ibrahimovic was undoubtedly a resounding success for United and Mourinho. In the 2016/17 season, Ibrahimovic provided 28 goals while playing a vital role in United’s clinching of the League Cup, the Europa League and the Community Shield. But for Ed Woodward it provided a poignant message, Galacticos could be successful.

Following the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Manchester United splashed out a world record £89 million on Paul Pogba. Similarly to the summer of 2014, the signing of Pogba for a United side lacking Champions League participation was seen as an extraordinary acquisition. With four Serie A title to his name at the age of 23, the Frenchman was viewed as the hottest midfield prospect in Europe.

Due to his previous stint at United and his friendship with players such as Jesse Lingard, the general consensus was that Pogba would settle in fairly comfortably at United. However, the 2016/17 season was a mixed season for the midfielder. Statistically speaking, Pogba only provided eight goals and five assists in the Premier League and the Europa League. In addition, Pogba came under repeated criticism for his ego-driven off-pitch persona, which came to the fore in the launch of his ‘Pogmoji’ brand on the day he conceded a penalty against Liverpool.

In spite of the criticism Pogba received, his opening goal against Ajax in the Europa League final was arguably the most important goal of United’s season. The Europa League triumph of United not only obtained silverware but also meant that United gained qualification for the Champions League in the 2017/18 season. 

In the 2017/18 season, United and Pogba got off to a flying start. The ‘Red Devils’ won six of their first seven games, scoring twenty-one goals in the process. Pogba provided two goals and two assists in the four games he played in United’ extraordinary run, emphasising how crucial the Frenchman was to United’s purple patch. However, in a UEFA Champions League encounter with FC Basel, Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury and faced six weeks on the sidelines as a result.

In the wake of Pogba’s injury, United was defeated by Chelsea and most surprisingly of all, Huddersfield Town. The impact of Pogba on United’s performances was illustrated by the fact that with Pogba, United picked up 2.75 points per game, and without him the picked up 1.85 points per game. Following a difficult festive period in which United dropped points against Burnley and Leicester City, the relationship between Paul Pogba and Mourinho began to deteriorate.

Following an on pitch dispute between the pair in a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Pogba’s ‘unstoppable’ status was erased. The most notable example of this came in United’s 2-1 home defeat to Sevilla, which as a result knocked United out of the Champions League. As opposed to starting the club’s record signing, Mourinho chose to include youth prospect Scott McTominay in the side, a decision which ultimately came back to bite Mourinho. This decision planted the seed for a monumental fall out in the following season.

Following a FIFA World Cup victory with France, Pogba was made vice-captain of United by Mourinho. This was seen as a potential turning point in the relationship between the pair. However, following Pogba’s public criticism of Mourinho’s tactics, the so-called ‘Special One’ stripped Pogba of the vice-captaincy. In addition, a training ground row between the manager and the player signified that their relationship was broken beyond the pair.

In Mourinho’s final months in charge, Pogba became a regular inclusion on the substitutes bench. The exclusion of Pogba from the side did nothing to help United’s results, and Mourinho was sacked as a result of United’s poor form. The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw a resurgence in Paul Pogba’s form.

The resurgence of Pogba helped United to win eleven out of their first twelve games under the Norwegian, and many saw this as a turning point in the Pogba’s career at United. However, following a rapid downturn in United’s and Pogba’s form, the Frenchman once again faced an onslaught of criticism. In spite of a mixed season, Pogba obtained a commendable 13 goals and nine assists in the Premier League. 

Following his public announcement of his desire to leave the club, it seems that three years on from his return to United, Pogba will depart once again. The dilemmas surrounded Pogba have emphasised the risk of signing ‘Galacticos’, due to the ego that comes with an elite signing. While Pogba’s United career has seen him win two trophies, and deliver some exceptional goal returns, specifically in the 2018/19 season, there appears to be a lingering feeling that he could’ve achieved much more at United.

While Ibrahimovic’s ego was backed up by on-pitch performances, Pogba has been seen by many as a hindrance on the club’s progress. In comparison to the ‘Gaalcticos’, the 2016 wave of Galacticos has been considerably more successful. The relentless goal-scoring endeavours of Ibrahimovic resoundingly trumped the performances of Radamel Falcao, with Ibrahimovic scoring seven times more goals than the Colombian.

While Ibrahimovic was undoubtedly a success, Paul Pogba’s level of success is more questionable. While the Frenchman’s performances have dwarfed those of Angel Di Maria, the Frenchman’s conflict with Mourinho, as well as his inconsistency on the pitch has been a source of frustration for United. Out of the four Galacticos signed from 2014 to 2016, only one of the elite stars has performed to the expected standard. However, the United Galactico era was drawing to a close following the summer of 2016, but the final Galactico was to be more devastating than the previous four combined.

Written by Alexei Braithwaite

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