As the Red Devils begin their preseason schedule under their new manager there are a number of stars who must fight for their futures, starting against Wigan on Saturday.
Manchester United begins an exciting new era when the side travels to Wigan on Saturday. But while the start of Jose Mourinho’s reign brings with it new optimism and intrigue, for many first-team players it will represent the need to step up and prove themselves.
The potential debuts of Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will certainly be the more eye-catching appointments for most United fans at the DW Stadium, but it is the need for existing stars to prove their worth to the new manager which will provide the most significant plot line over the first 90 minutes of Mourinho’s spell with the Red Devils.
It is exactly because United was rammed full of mediocrity last season that Louis van Gaal was shown the door and Mourinho handed his prestigious job – and a large number of the Dutchman’s former allies now find themselves with something significant to prove.
The most obvious name that comes to the fore is that of Juan Mata, who has already been discarded by Mourinho once before in January 2014 at Chelsea following a rocky period for the back-to-back club Player of the Year. On that occasion the Portuguese’s arrival led to Mata’s work rate being thrown into the spotlight, and the Spain international seemed to crumble under the new pressure.
His winter move to Old Trafford that season cost United 37.1 million pounds ($49.7 million) and, while his quality on the ball has left a great impression on many fans at the Theater of Dreams, it is fair to say that question marks regarding Mata’s off-the-ball work rate and desire to seek out possession loom as large as they did at Stamford Bridge three years ago.
Daley Blind might have been the closest thing United had to an ever-present last season with his 56 appearances in 59 games, but he will find himself having to prove to Mourinho that he has an outstanding quality that the new boss cannot do without.
His predominant role under Van Gaal in 2015-16 was that of a stand-in center back, and while the experiment worked to some degree thanks to his clever reading of the game, a lack of pace and defensive instinct saw him exposed too often. Mourinho’s first move in the market this summer was to add Bailly in the spot Blind filled last term, and as such the 26-year-old has something to prove all over again in terms of his value in another position.
“I’m more a manager that likes specialists and not so much the multi-functional players,” said Mourinho at his unveiling, “because I’m very clear in my approach so I need specialists for that.” And since nobody more than Blind has shown his flexibility over the past two years, the Wigan friendly provides him with a challenge to show he can be a firm fixture in one particular position. With Bailly’s arrival and Luke Shaw’s return to fitness, that spot could well be the central midfield role he originally filled when signing for United in 2014.
Beyond Mata and Blind, others also have much to prove. Ander Herrera has dazzled only occasionally in his two years at Old Trafford, and his style does not match with the physical, energetic approach to midfield play which has become synonymous with Mourinho midfields.
Memphis Depay has something more akin to the profile of a player who Mourinho could make good use of, but his performance level over the course of 2015-16 was well short and, as such, he may need to hit the ground running to avoid being moved on. Adnan Januzaj falls under the same category having never truly convinced since his breakthrough campaign under David Moyes, and Jesse Lingard must prove himself all over again now that the likes of Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been added to the forward line.
Andreas Pereira will be fighting for recognition following a spell under Van Gaal which produced zero league starts, and players such as Ashley Young and James Wilson will also need to leave an early impression on their new boss.
As other stars return following their involvement at Euro 2016 there will be more futures to solve, with the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian all needing to convince Mourinho that they have a future at Old Trafford, but there are plenty available for action in Wigan on Saturday with cases of their own to present to the Special One.
Will Mata, Blind, Memphis, Januzaj, Lingard et al be a part of Mourinho’s brave new world? We will start to learn the answer at the DW Stadium.