Manchester United: 5th
FA Cup: Winners
Capital One Cup: Round Four
Champions League: Group Stage
Europa League: Round of 16
There were many talking points during the 2015-16 season in the Premier League as defending champions Chelsea fell from grace, Tottenham emerged as serious contenders and Leicester City defied the odds in spectacular fashion to win the title by a massive 10 points. But still no club attracted more debate and more column inches than Manchester United as criticisms over the team’s style of football and speculation over the future of manager Louis van Gaal waged on for months, right up to the final kick – and indeed beyond.
After lifting the club back into the top four and apparently stabilising things during his first year in charge, van Gaal set his sights on winning the league, but as big name players left including Angel Di Maria and Robin van Persie, the club spent less in the summer of 2015 than they had the previous year. World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and Southampton star Morgan Schneiderlin added depth to the midfield, Matteo Darmian represented a more natural option at full-back, while exciting young Dutch forward Memphis Depay was signed early.
The final acquisition however was the one that got most people talking, as the Red Devils eclipsed the huge sum they paid for Luke Shaw by making 18-year-old Frenchman Anthony Martial the world’s most expensive teenager at £36m. Many felt this was a hefty price for one so young, but the increasing promise he had shown at Monaco had led to positive comparisons with Thierry Henry.
Another major success was keeping hold of goalkeeper David De Gea after he seemed set to return to his homeland and join Real Madrid. In recognition of this transfer saga he did not feature in the opening month of the season as United picked up seven points from their first four domestic outings and breezed through their Champions League qualifier by getting the better of Club Brugge 7-1 on aggregate.
Martial announced himself to the Old Trafford faithful by scoring a brilliant solo goal on his debut against arch rivals Liverpool, before going on to add two more the following week at Southampton. Such an impact brought an air of optimism around the club, but that did not last long as a lack of goals began to surface during October aside from an impressive 3-0 win at Everton. A woeful first half showing at Arsenal and a Capital One Cup exit at the hands of Championship promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough led to a few rumblings of discontent.
Yet by the end of November they were second going into the clash with leaders Leicester City, which ended in a 1-1 draw. The real concerns surrounded the Champions League, as in a reasonably kind looking group containing CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven and Wolfsburg they faced a battle to make the knockout stages. Alas they failed, after suffering defeat in a thrilling match in Germany. It was a massive letdown and put van Gaal’s position under scrutiny.
That result kickstarted a sequence of poor results which led the Dutchman seemingly to be hanging by a thread, with various back pages of national newspapers predicting his impending departure. It was exacerbated by wide ranging condemnation of the slow and possession based playing style that had been adopted, which had made them fairly easy to play against for many visiting sides to Old Trafford. It was all not akin to what supporters and observers of Manchester United were used to seeing. Chants of ‘Attack Attack Attack’ were an increasingly regular occurance from the frustrated masses.
There were multiple injury problems to contend with at the time, but few were willing to provide this fact as an excuse for van Gaal. Three straight Premier League losses at the hands of Bournemouth, Norwich City and Stoke City left United with plenty of ground to make up, before the calendar year ended with a goalless draw against Chelsea, who had recently sacked Jose Mourinho. As a result, he had been heavily linked with United should van Gaal be sacked.
January was a month of ups and downs that did little to enhance van Gaal’s position and indeed their league standing, as they lay five points off the top four. On the first day of February they ended an abysmal run of 11 home matches in which they had failed to score in the first half, turning on the style for once in the return match with Stoke. All the same, the knives were out again for van Gaal soon after as United were beaten in the first leg of their Europa League tie with Danish side Midtjylland.
Enter Marcus Rashford. The virtually unknown teenage striker was given his chance due to Martial being injured in the warm-up ahead of the second leg and he burst on to the scene in incredible fashion, netting twice to help book their place in the next round. It got even better for him just three days later as he scored another brace against Arsenal, adding to the the media furore that had quickly surrounded the latest new talent to come out of the club’s academy. It gave van Gaal a huge lift at the most opportune time.
Rashford was not the only player to emerge from the junior ranks over the course of the season as full-backs Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah both gave a decent account of themselves after being given their chance, while the slightly more experienced Jesse Lingard became a first-team regular as the season progressed.
There was little time to dwell on that brief resurgence as they were soon sent tumbling out of the Europa League by – of all teams – Liverpool, and comfortably. That just left the FA Cup to fight for in terms of silverware, while hopes of finishing in the top four were still looking rather fanciful despite getting the better of neighbours Manchester City through another Rashford goal.
It was Rashford again who was instrumental in securing a place in the FA Cup semi-finals by scoring a sublime goal in what turned out to be the competition’s last ever quarter-final replay, at West Ham United. That booked a Wembley meeting with Everton and this time it was Martial who stole the show, scoring the winner at the death to at least move them to within sight of a first trophy since the 2013 retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
With just a week of the Premier League season remaining they were given an unexpected chance to qualify for the Champions League. Win the final two games and fourth place would be theirs, but they blew it at the first attempt by squandering a lead to lose at West Ham and Man City got the point they needed on the final day to seal their fate. It was this failure, almost unthinkable at the beginning of the season, that was to eventually account for van Gaal.
For Man Utd did manage to win the FA Cup, coming from behind and recovering from the setback of going down to 10 men in extra time to edge past Crystal Palace to lift that particular trophy for the first time in some 12 years. After Juan Mata had levelled, Lingard proved to be the hero as a struck an unstoppable volley to move out of the shadow of Rashford. As for captain Wayne Rooney, he turned in a man-of-the-match performance in a deep-lying midfield role.
But just hours after those ecstatic scenes reports began to arise stating that van Gaal was indeed set to lose his job, and be replaced by Mourinho. That news was confirmed during the week amid round the clock coverage, with Mourinho finally unveiled on Friday. A man almost attracted to success, he has been tasked with restoring winning football to Man Utd and will certainly create fireworks in the years ahead.
As for van Gaal, it was sad to see details of his imminent sacking leaked so soon after his success at Wembley, but looking back on his two years at the club it has to go down as a failure considering the expectations. A great amount of intrigue surrounded his appointment in the wake of guiding the Netherlands to third place in the 2014 World Cup, be ultimately he failed to deliver.