Paul Pogba’s impending suspension will bring an end to a career that should have seen more success. A career that saw him become the world’s best midfielder before a move to Manchester United in 2016.
Not only did this move define his career, but the 2016-17 season became a monumental year for United.
So much of the current state of Manchester United’s current predicament can be explained through the prism of the 2016-17 season. Change and progress were meant to push the club forward in a wide-open Premier League. Instead, the club is further from glory today than at the end of the season.
A lot of the pain that United fans feel today stems from the failure to sustain the special aspects of that year. It was a time when the club took their future seriously and saw a chance to return some hope to fans.
Now, the club is a mess, starting from their refusal to initially get rid of Mason Greenwood to the ongoing war between ten Hag and Sancho. There really is no point in fans expecting anything to get better. So why not take a look at the moment in time when things looked to finally be changing and why it ultimately failed.
Louis van Gaal’s time as manager of Manchester United never really made much sense in hindsight. Coming off an incredible 2014 World Cup with the Dutch team, van Gaal’s tactical brilliance and project management could have been a catalyst. However, his time in Manchester became synonymous with ugly football and inconsistent play.
Recent years have shown that, at this point in his career, van Gaal is meant for the international stage. He’s great at building a system when he’s given time to vet players for how he wants to play. These characteristics are best for jobs that are meant to deliver long-term results.
Despite winning the FA Cup in 2016, van Gaal’s time was up, and the United hierarchy had their replacement lined up. After taking a year break following his removal as United manager, José Mourinho accepted his first non-Chelsea Prem challenge. Mourinho was still seen as a serial winner at this point, and despite the chaos he brought, United bet big on his arrival.
The Portuguese brought with him a breath of fresh air, even if clubs had started to tire of his schtick. Mourniho had forced himself out of all his previous clubs as the doubts over his fit in the modern game became louder. If he were to fail at United, the prospect of returning to the summit of managerial greatness would continue to dim.
To build his optimal side, Mourinho needed the backing of United’s directors. Like van Gaal, he got it. United would then proceed to have, perhaps, the most interesting transfer window of the 2010s.
Beginning with the transfers out, United got some interesting returns for players that weren’t fitting in. Not even Don Draper could have convinced a club to pay for the corpse of Bastian Schweinsteiger. He would leave United and Europe for MLS on a free.
United did an excellent job at reciprocating almost all their original money for Morgan Schneiderlin. The midfielder never made real sense at United and was more fit for a mid-table club like Everton, which he joined.
Finally, Memphis Depay would depart United for just under 14 million pounds. For all the hype and potential Depay came with, it must have killed the club to unload on the cheap. Especially with how much Lyon would get for him in the future, this was by far their biggest loss.
It’s really in their transfers where Mourinho’s core was being built. These moves would, at the time, be the most impressive of all of Europe.
Fresh off being unceremoniously cast out by PSG, Zlatan Ibrahimović got his first bite at the Prem. In the season before joining United, the Swede had scored 38 goals and looked younger than his age of 34. Mourinho had his next offensive focal point in Ibra.
Eric Bailly is now a way to describe busts, but coming off an impressive season with Villareal, he was seen as United’s next defensive anchor. Bailly was profiled as an excellent ball-stopper with sky-high potential.
One player that the streets won’t forget is 2015-16 Henrikh Mkhitaryan. That season, he would nearly single-handedly carry Dortmund to a second-place finish with 11 goals and 15 assists. Throw him anywhere from winger to false nine, and he would find a way to contribute.
If there’s a player who symbolizes the versatility required in the modern game, it’s Mkhitaryan. With the number 10 being fazed out, he naturally adapted to the wing and was just as successful. In the Armenian, Mourinho was to have his next Eden Hazard.
A hill that I will die on is that Paul Pogba was the best midfielder on Earth by 2016. That change came with him being handed the keys to the Juventus team after the 2015 Champions League final. After that game, Allegri did everything in his power to build the squad around him.
Very few players combined flair and intelligence like Pogba; he could pick out a pass halfway across the pitch while cooking players. Getting him would give United the best player in the league and a potential Ballon d’Or to build around. His announcement broke the internet and was the most monumental move that the league had seen up to that point.
Outside of these transfers, Mourinho had a decent squad inherited from the Dutchman. Rashford and Martial were hungry forwards who showed they could score in the Prem. At the same time, de Gea was still at his peak, with Antonio Valencia still being able to put in a shift at right back.
After the 2016 Euros, it was time for United to take control of the Prem. With Leicester’s surprise win and rebuilds underway at the other top six clubs, the opportunity was there.
What happened next would both thrill and horrify United fans. A season where the club would taste European glory would end up being the end of a short era of hope at Old Trafford. Everything that went both right and wrong ended up defining United in ways that still felt today.