The remainder of this season for Manchester United is an all-or-nothing scenario. Winning the Europa League will resolve an ultimately successful season. The primary objective was to secure Champions League qualification, and Europa League success can provide an unlikely route to achieving that target. However, defeat in the final against Ajax will place Jose Mourinho in a precarious position for the start of next season, as wasted efforts in Europe have compromised their league campaign.
Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford with the reputation and charisma requisite for the job, and this instigated optimistic notions of a title challenge. A summer defined by spending £150 million marked a side keen to banish memories of the past few seasons while recapturing their status as the most feared side in the league. However, it has not quite transpired that way.
Mourinho is in the extremely unfortunate position of having guided his side through a 25-match unbeaten run in the league but having nothing to show for it. Normally such runs are the hallmark of a side galloping towards the title, yet United sit in sixth place. Too many draws hamstrung a run of impressive defensive performances, with injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic both ill-timed and a stark reminder of how important the Swede is as a focal point to United’s play.
In particular, home draws against Hull City, Bournemouth and Swansea City will be seen as missed opportunities to earn and consolidate a spot in the top four. Mourinho can justifiably point to the evasion of defeats as characteristic of a top side, but the failure to dispatch the league’s weaker sides is a concern. It is difficult to see how Mourinho can overcome this problem without bringing in some high-profile additions, but any further lavish spending will ensure that he will come under huge pressure if United are not challenging for the title. With great fees come great expectations, and Mourinho’s forays into the transfer market so far have yielded mixed results.
Breaking the transfer record for Paul Pogba brought hopes that the Frenchman would dominate the midfield in a way that Old Trafford has not witnessed in recent years, but the weight of expectation has seen Pogba blow hot and cold. He has not been as ineffective as some might suggest, but such a huge transfer fee means that if Pogba doesn’t drive his side to a league title in his time in Manchester then he will be deemed a failure.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was another expensive addition, but when fit he has been deployed bizarrely by Mourinho. It took the Armenian several matches to work his way into Mourinho’s mind, which prompts the question of what the manager was thinking when endorsing his signing. Eric Bailly has been considerably more successful, and looks to be the defensive rock that United have craved since the departure of Nemanja Vidic.
Last but certainly not least, the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has proved shrewd for all parties. The legendary Swede has lost neither the flair and power in his play nor the flair and power in his character. Ibrahimovic is not getting younger, as not even he can arrest the process of ageing, but his remarkable fitness will probably buy Mourinho another year to find his long-term replacement.
Mourinho has had to watch with disillusionment as his Chelsea side that became mid-table fodder under his command were reinvigorated by Antonio Conte on their way to being crowned champions. The top six sides are all managed by revered coaches and are blessed with a multitude of talent, yet Mourinho had the self-confidence and the finances to believe that his side could challenge.
The caveat of having six sides with genuine designs on the title, let alone the top four, is that theoretically at least two clubs will finish their season in disappointment. In reality, only Chelsea can claim to be truly happy with their campaign, but that is what winning the title can do for you. Tottenham will be mostly content, although frustrated at another season filling the role of plucky challenger. Their London rivals Arsenal will be relieved if they can snatch their customary spot in the top four, or at least Arsene Wenger will be delighted even if the fans despair at another season of underachievement.
It is Arsenal that have provided one of the main obstacles to United’s path to the top four, and Arsenal specialise in securing a top-four finish to compensate for another lacklustre season. Arsenal’s remaining three fixtures are a trip to Stoke followed by the hosting of relegated Sunderland and an Everton side with little at stake. The Gunners are touted to seal a substantial haul of points in these fixtures, with oddschecker providing a favourable preview of Arsenal’s fortunes for those bettors interested in finding the best odds for the crucial last games of the season.
Arsenal’s recent resurgence, in conjunction with the consistency of Liverpool and Manchester City, has ensured that United’s hopes of top four have all but ended. Normally this would be a catastrophic development, but United fans can find solace in the most unlikely of places: the Europa League. Winning the trophy will make all of their league fixtures obsolete, as entry into the Champions League group stage will be assured. United will meet Ajax on the 24th May in a battle for a competition which used to be a possible burden but is now a possible saviour.
For a club traditionally conditioned to expect success, nothing can be taken for granted any more. Ajax have excelled this season with their renowned strength in youth the basis for their attacking verve and fearless play; this is typified by manager Peter Bosz selecting the youngest line-up in Eredivisie history for a title decider. Ajax won the match comfortably but ultimately fell just short of the title due to results elsewhere. Having been deprived of a league title, the young players will now be looking to the tie with United with unbridled anticipation.
United have the unenviable position of being expected to win. If Mourinho guides his side to victory then it will be what many commentators have perceived the minimum requirement for United in a tournament bereft of the star quality that the Champions League offers. After all, United advanced to the final courtesy of a shocking late miss from John Guidetti of Celta Vigo, a side languishing 13th in La Liga. Lose in the final, and Mourinho will be criticised for failing to deliver success in a competition that would ultimately have compromised their league campaign for no gain.
Europa League success could perhaps be adequate recompense for an under helming league season. If Mourinho can deliver the trophy then he will be able to swat away questions over his performance with a reminder that Champions League football awaits. This will buy him a quieter summer in terms of questions over his job, but the Portuguese will have many conundrums about his side’s league performance to ponder.
This season can be written off as a season of transition, but Mourinho will need success in the Europa League as a marker for progress being made. Next season will be the season upon which he is ultimately judged; failure to get close to the title and uninspiring performances in the Champions League will be damning for the Special One. But before next season can be considered Mourinho has to work out how to defeat a buoyant Ajax side with Champions League football at stake. It could be this game that defines next season as well as this one.