While 2016/17 was the season Manchester United bet on star power to bring back the glory days, 2017/18 might see the return practicality to proceedings at Old Trafford.
From the appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager, through to the massive signings of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the summer of 2016 was something of a whirlwind.
As soon as Mourinho put pen to paper, the Theatre of Dreams seemingly lived up to its name. No ambition was too high, no player too expensive – it was a whirlwind of excitement and promise.
An increasingly stale line-up, lacking the true star power that so many United sides before it had in spades, the appointment of Mourinho and big-name signings that followed bought the hype back to Old Trafford.
United were recently named the most valuable football club in the world and the third-most valuable sports club across all codes by Forbes, an achievement thanks in no small part to the commercial value brought to the table by Pogba and the club’s youthful, revitalised look.
To be fair, it bought trophies as well.
The Community Shield was a nice way to kick things off, the League Cup a nice touch and – in the end – the Europa League a vital piece of silverware to round off United’s collection and secure that all-important Champions League spot.
The Premier League campaign was undoubtedly the wet towel which provided Mourinho and United their fair dose of reality. A sixth-placed finish – given the money spent on new players and the expectation that came with Mourinho’s appointment – was unacceptable for most.
What the league campaign exposed was United’s embarrassing lack of options – both tactically and in terms of personnel.
United might be the most valuable football club, but under the headline acts, there is not a lot of substance.
An unfortunately large injury list and the club’s biggest fixture list in recent memory were elements out of Mourinho’s control, but as the Portuguese manager comes into his second season at the club, he will hope he has a much more robust and versatile squad than he did at the start of his first.
It was no surprise then to hear Mourinho say he wants at least two more players before the start of the Premier League season.
Following on from the signings of Victor Lindelof – who provides much needed depth in defence – and Romelu Lukaku – who adds goals and mobility to the forward line – Mourinho’s next two targets will need to bolster the depth of his squad and be capable of playing in multiple positions.
That is why the pursuit of Ivan Perisic makes perfect sense. Not the big name – at least in England – that Lukaku is, Perisic’s dynamism and work ethic would make him the perfect addition to the squad. At 28, his best years lie ahead and his ability to play on the left or through the middle would bring exactly the sort of all-round talent Mourinho needs to round out his attacking options.
Whether or not Ed Woodward can deliver on the Perisic front remains a nervy waiting game and one feels the longer the saga goes the less likely Inter – who these days possess significant financial muscle – would be to sell their star man.
Perisic or not, United’s next attacking target needs to be in a similar mould to the Croatia international.
The only other player on the market that would seemingly fit the bill is Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, who has made no secret of his desire to leave the Emirates for Champions League football, despite Arsenal’s refusal to sell.
Where Mourinho looks beyond the forward line will depend on who is leaving Old Trafford.
If the plan is to maintain the current squad, then the next addition has to be in central midfield.
Paul Pogba provides class, Ander Herrera is gutsy, courageous, talented and can still improve while Marouane Fellaini has proven himself a solid squad option if nothing else. Daley Blind is another option – though somewhat untried by Mourinho in midfield – while the manager could also bank on the potential of Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
Nemanja Matic is the man most heavily linked with United and while he is not the most exciting name, he definitely would add some much-needed punch, experience and depth to the middle of the park.
Depending on who leaves, Mourinho may also need to turn his attention to defence once again, where genuine full-back stocks are at an all-time low.
Antonio Valencia is the stand-out candidate on the right, with only Matteo Darmian as recognised senior back-up, while the left-back role looks incredibly thin.
Luke Shaw is the stand-out candidate on potential, but is seemingly permanently injured or struggling for fitness. Darmian has played the role with some success, while Blind, Marcos Rojo and even Ashley Young can fill-in, but they are just that: fill-ins.
Of course, while United have spent plenty, the pit of money is not endless and Mourinho’s latest comments suggest that he will have to cut down on his original preference of four new players to three.
If that is the case, then the versatility and productivity of Perisic would surely trump all others as Mourinho puts in place the final building blocks for what he hopes will be United’s next Premier League winning team.