We speak to Iwan Lehnert from Red Voices podcast ahead of Manchester United’s trip to the Liberty Stadium this weekend…
How would you assess last season? Would you say triumphs in the cups made up for a disappointing campaign in the league?
“Last season ended up being great for United, even if our league form was, for the most part, pretty wretched. Jose Mourinho took a massive gamble by sacking off a top four finish as early as he did and our league form fell off a cliff, but winning the Europa League final against Ajax made it all worthwhile. Ultimately, United never really looked like they could win the Premier League last season, and winning the Europa League, as bloated and awkward a competition as it is, feels far more significant than a top four finish. A combination of that and the League Cup win (because we’re not counting the Community Shield as a proper trophy) made it a decent season, despite that avalanche of draws and our issues in front of goal, and it’s hopefully laid some promising groundwork for this year.”
You’ve spent considerable sums of money on three players so far this summer. Are you happy with the business you’ve done and are you hoping/expecting any more new players before the window shuts?
“So far, so good, I’d say! It’s dangerous to read too much into the first game of the season, but the club has brought in some great players this summer. Nemanja Matic was wonderful to watch against West Ham last weekend, and Romelu Lukaku has a look of a player who is ready for the big time. The way he took both goals last Sunday was particularly pleasing. Victor Lindelof may take some time to adjust, but Mourinho is normally very good at picking out promising young centre backs so there shouldn’t be any real worry there.
“I wouldn’t expect United to bring in any one else at this stage; Mourinho seems pretty happy with what he has, and the club seems hesitant to pay over the odds for players this summer if they can avoid it. Not only that, but the club have a habit of briefing strongly when they’re close to signing a player, and transfer news seems to have dried up in the last few weeks.”
What are your aims and hopes for the upcoming campaign?
“Realistically, I think the club and the fans are expecting to see a proper title challenge this year. Mourinho famously does well in his second season, so there’s added xpectation in that sense, and extra pressure when you consider that we haven’t had a say in where the Premier League trophy has gone over the last four years. The squad may have a few areas that are slightly uneven in terms of quality, but it’s arguably the strongest it’s been since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. At the bare minimum, there’s a feeling that United should be fighting for the league as far into the season as they possibly can.
“Beyond that, getting out of the Champions League group stages is another significant aim. I think we’re a few years away from being able to challenge for it again on a regular basis, but again, a club of United’s size has to be looking to progress as far as possible, and given how limply we exited the competition under Louis Van Gaal two years ago, making it to the knockout stages should be a primary target. Beyond that, a domestic cup would be lovely!”
Jose Mourinho has been in the Old Trafford hot seat for just over a year now. Are you confident you have the right man for the job?
“That’s a tricky one. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed him managing the club, and the silverware return last season was certainly welcome, but given Mourinho’s temperament, you do wonder how long he’ll give himself at the club before things turn sour. He’s certainly bought well, and the quality of the squad has improved significantly since Van Gaal was in charge, but we’re still waiting to see everything click for this United side on a regular basis. It arguably didn’t last season, and too many of our talented players struggled to deliver under him, so the jury’s out as to how successful he can be at the club.
“He’s still good value in front of the cameras, for sure, delivering the occasional devastating barb to a rival. As long as he’s enjoying himself and the club are performing well, I’d love to have him in charge for the foreseeable future. Short answer, I’d say we have the right man for the job for now, but with Mourinho, there’s no guarantee how long that will last for.”
Who are your star performers and who needs to up their game?
“Trite as it may be to say it, but Paul Pogba really did have a better season than many casual observers gave him credit for, and if United are going to challenge for the league this year, he will be central to all of our plans. Other than him, Lukaku looks like he could be the consistent, dominant striker that we need, and Matic’s skillset could set our attacking talent free to wreak havoc, which we struggled to do last season.
“In terms of underachievers, there are several players in the current squad who are on borrowed time, with Luke Shaw in particular needing to prove himself this season. The horrific leg injury sustained in 2015 has certainly hampered his progress but if he’s unable to nail down a starting position this term, then you’d assume that he’ll be shown the door. Elsewhere, Anthony Martial excelled in his first season after moving from Monaco, but Mourinho doesn’t seem convinced by him whatsoever. He’s been publicly critical of Martial, played him sporadically and seems to be challenging him to provide exactly what he’s after or else, so it feels like a gigantic season for the Frenchman.”
What do you make of Swansea and which players if any do you fear?
“I was actually quite happy to see Swansea stay up last season. Last season looked to be a real mess for the club from the outside, and avoiding relegation after a season of such turmoil was a real achievement. I’m glad to see Paul Clement doing well, but this season looks like it could be a struggle. I don’t need to tell you that Gylfi Sigurdsson is a gigantic loss, and Fernando Llorente will need to have a big season, because I’m not sure where else the goals will come from. Here’s hoping you can invest that £45m from Everton swiftly.”
Predict the score and where both teams will finish this season:
“1-3 to United on Saturday, I reckon. I can see Mourinho picking the same team that battered West Ham last weekend, and I fancy us to score if we play anywhere near as well as we did in that game.
“In terms of league positions, I’m going for United to finish 2nd, and Swansea 14th. All the best for this season!”