To scan Manchester United’s XI for their triumphant Europa League 2017 final against Ajax is to land in another age. José Mourinho was the manager, Marouane Fellaini his No 10, Antonio Valencia the captain and right-back, Daley Blind a left-sided central defender, Paul Pogba the No 8, and Marcus Rashford centre-forward. The latter two illuminate how the United story has moved on.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjær sends his team out to face Villarreal for Wednesday night’s final at the Gdansk Stadium, Pogba and Rashford will be the only survivors from Mourinho’s side who can expect to have their tracksuits off for the pre-showpiece ceremony.
Four years is a long time in professional sport, so there will always be the churn of players. But when Ed Woodward hired Solskjær as Mourinho’s temporary (at first) replacement in December 2018, the vice-chairman was kickstarting a United revival that eluded the Portuguese and his predecessors, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes.
The moment signalled a culture shift or reboot, a return to the club-first ethos put in place by Matt Busby in winter 1945 when he became manager and which Alex Ferguson reconnected with when taking over in 1986. Just as the latter had a vision of how to revive a great institution following drift under Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, so Solskjær arrived with a clear plan.
The team he fields against Villarreal will embody his approach. Solskjær wants United to launch fast raids with Bruno Fernandes the chief conductor. So while Fellaini typified Mourinho’s leaden-footed approach, the zesty Portuguese midfielder is the prime exemplar of the Solskjær way.
The manager’s revamp is found throughout his United side, though not every position has been markedly improved. At right-back in Stockholm, Valencia was a converted winger and weary-legged 31. Now the speedy 23-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka, two seasons into his United career, adds forward menace to rearguard skills as one of the best one-on-one tacklers. Across from Wan-Bissaka, centre-back Victor Lindelöf has superseded Chris Smalling, whose tendency to turn in instalments was bound to see him fall from favour. The Swede is a better ball-player for the now-Roma man but whether his defending is an upgrade is debatable.
Blind, who has also departed, was a quasi-midfielder whose place has almost certainly become Eric Bailly’s as the knee injury of Harry Maguire looks likely to rule him out. The loss of the captain would be a blow, but as Bailly is pacy, determined and defends with an edge he is a far better option than Blind.
Luke Shaw is also an enhancement at left-back where four years ago Matteo Darmian was incumbent, while Pogba – a World Cup-winner the following summer – may again operate in the engine room, alongside Scott McTominay, whose muscle and upfield bursts improve on what Ander Herrera offered. If Pogba is not McTominay’s partner – the Frenchman could be fielded wide on the left – then Fred, who is hardly Herrera’s superior, will be drafted in.
Solskjær’s front four is a glittering talent parade compared with the quartet Mourinho fielded in the Swedish capital. Juan Mata was a paceless right-sided attacker, Fellaini a search-and-destroy unit and Henrikh Mkhitaryan an erratic contributor (whose goal sealed victory after Pogba opened the scoring), with only Rashford’s career having since gone skyward. Now 33, Mata remains at United but struggles for match-time as a substitute, Fellaini has moved on to China’s Shandong Luneng, and Mkhitaryan is with Smalling at Roma.
Solskjær has shifted Rashford to his preferred berth on the left from where he can zig-zag in towards goal, the irrepressible Fernandes is a roving No 10, the 19-year-old prodigy Mason Greenwood raids from the right and, at 34, Edinson Cavani remains a world-class No 9. As the latter’s exhilarating 40-yard strike in United’s 1-1 draw with Fulham underlined, Cavani has been the free transfer of this season, the Uruguayan who has plundered nine goals in the last 10 appearances giving Solskjær’s XI a lethal focal point that United were missing under Mourinho. United at last have a genuine centre-forward instead of an uneasy one in Rashford or unconvincing one in Anthony Martial, who is a fitness doubt, and was a replacement in Sweden four years ago.
The Greenwood-Fernandes-Rashford-Cavani unit has stardust and are consistent goalscorers – qualities absent from Mourinho’s ensemble. And while Solskjær’s side can be vulnerable in defence, they are a work-in-progress in which evolution can be easily identified in the restored off-field culture so crucial to on-field performance. The 48-year-old is the former United “super-sub” who soaked up how Ferguson created great teams by recognising that a successful club must be unified from youth team canteen to first-team centre-forward.
United are in concert like they never were under Mourinho. But to ensure the notes do not become discordant, they have to start winning trophies. Wednesday’s Europa League final is a golden chance to do so.