2016/17 was not a vintage Manchester United season for many reasons – for one, they finished 6th in the league and secondly, they did not score a ton of goals like they often did in the past, in fact they only managed to net a paltry 54 goals in 38 games – which puts them a lowly eighth in the ‘goals for’ column, behind Bournemouth.
Put that into context, the Red Devils have scored 23 goals fewer than a side that finished just above them (5th) in the table in Arsenal, which is quite abysmal, yet unsurprising given their final league positions in the last four years.
Props to you if you’ve already come across part one with my fourth and fifth best moments of United’s campaign, otherwise the door is open right here.
3. Mourinho Outsmarts Antonio Conte (at last) at Old Trafford
Jose Mourinho was under a huge pressure already with the second leg of a European quarter-final on the horizon and the visit of his high-flying old employers as league leaders after two back to back wins scoring five goals without response, only really exacerbated it.
Chelsea came to Old Trafford as firm favourites, with their focus fully on extending the lead over second-placed Tottenham Hotspur at the top, but left without a shot on target. Mourinho fielded an experimental side relegating his top scorer to the bench – in a pseudo 4-4-2 with Rashford and Lingard up front – hassling the opposition back three, which worked wonders on the day.
The 19-year old Marcus Rashford opened the scoring, a product of his pace and tenacity, and the home side never looked back. United squeezed the space when they needed to and limited the league’s most creative footballer in Eden Hazard to an anonymity, thanks to an exceptional man-marking man-of-the-match display from Ander Herrera who had set up the first goal. The Spaniard would scored the second goal himself, rounding off a fine performance with a satisfying scoreline.
Although the result did not matter in the grand scheme of things as Chelsea would go on to eventually win the Premier League, the performance very much did, for Jose Mourinho at least. Manchester United put a wretched run of results against the Blues (9 win-less games) to a screeching halt while for the Portuguese, it was much more personal than he would have liked to admit.
After the game he said,
“I don’t feel extra joy at beating Chelsea – we beat the leader. It doesn’t matter if the leader is Chelsea or another – we beat them convincingly. Nobody can doubt our credit to win the game.”
If you believed every word of that, you would believe anything.
2. Marcus Rashford’s Free Kick in Balaídos
Rashford was a revelation, a much-needed shot in the arm, in the final third of 2015/16 when United huffed and puffed to the finish line under Louis van Gaal. He scored a brace in his debut in the Europa League, announcing his arrival at Old Trafford to the 75,000 strong crowd – but when he netted two inside as many minutes in a memorable win against Arsenal a few days later, the wee lad from Wythenshawe, he had the attention of the rest of the country.
However, under Mourinho in 2016/17, the forward took upon himself greater responsibilities, particularly in the business end of the season, when star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured himself in the second leg against Anderlecht, a game Manchester United could have easily lost, if it were not for a vital extra time winner from young Rashford.
From a potent option on the bench who could make an impact in the final 20 minutes, Rashford, under the stewardship of Mourinho, became the Roy-of-the-Rovers figure at Old Trafford for a brief but very important period in United’s campaign. No particular moment would highlight this transition more than his exemplary display at Celta Vigo, when Manchester United traveled to Spain desperately needing a good result.
After a first half where United would miss a trio of clear-cut chances, up stepped the 19-year old to take a free kick, a few yards from the edge of the box. The rest is romance only Manchester United could conjure.
Jose Mourinho, not one for praising individual performances, could not contain his appreciation for Rashford, in the post-match interview. Here was someone who mirrored his image of an ideal player on the pitch – blessed with flamboyance and determination to complement the invaluable ability to withstand pressure.
It was no surprise that Jose Mourinho did not fail to mention the fact that the youngster in fact, carried an injury going into the game which, if anything, is a tried-and-tested way to impress the manager.
And on that night, it looked as if Manchester’s very own Marcus Rashford had ticked all the boxes, at last.
1. Manchester United Complete the Set
It was a long season, but there was a trophy to be won to end it on a high, in the Swedish capital – where the Red Devils enjoy a fervent and long-standing affection. These were the ninety minutes that the supporters and the club were looking forward to, religiously counting down the days to another European final, even before they had confirmed their participation – such was Mourinho’s narrowed focus, which meant they let the top four race in the Premier League slip with as many as five games to spare.
For all the hype, it was an anti-climax in the end, as a free-scoring total-football-inspired Ajax Amsterdam with an average age of 22, were snuffed out by a much more physical and experienced Manchester United shouldering the weight of a tragic bombing which claimed innocent lives in the city they proudly represented.
Mourinho approached the final with a sensible plan, and it all panned out as he had foreseen, so much so that the result was beyond in any doubt after Paul Pogba’s 18th minute attempt from outside the box aided by a wicked deflection beat the helpless Onana.
The Portuguese manager, after all the criticism he received for winning his fourth straight European final without an iota of hassle, was seen celebrating in front of the United end after the final whistle, in acknowledgement of the support and journey many of those fans would have embarked on – from Spain to Russia via Ukraine and Turkey – in an arduous campaign with the side – muted and arms stretched out, almost in an effort to recreate the famous scene from the Wolf of Wall Street.
It was job done – the baseline expectations of silverware and Champions League football were met – as Manchester United completed the set by winning every International and European trophy they could lay their hands on, following the club’s maiden Europa League triumph.