Rashford’s rise, Wembley win, van Gaal out, Mourinho in: Man United’s 2016

Manchester United have started to find their stride in the Premier League. FC’s Craig Burley credits Jose Mourinho.
Paul Mariner rates Jose Mourinho among the top ten managers in the world but no longer in the upper echelons of football.

2016 has been an up-and-down year for Manchester United. Andy Mitten looks back at the highs and lows.

Best moment: After 110 minutes on a dank, grey London afternoon, United took the lead for the first time in the FA Cup final, when Jesse Lingard, who had been with the club since the age of 7, half volleyed a shot past Crystal Palace’s Wayne Hennessey at the end where 31,000 United fans stood. It would be enough to win the trophy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Within half an hour of the final whistle, Louis van Gaal, who had been booed by thousands of United fans that day, found out that he was losing his job as manager. Before that, he had been adamant that he would stay to see out the third year of his contract.

Five best performances

1. Nov. 30: 4-1 vs. West Ham. In the EFL Cup quarterfinals, this was a night when it felt like the old United were back.

2. Nov. 6: 3-1 vs. Swansea. OK, Swansea were in free fall, but the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Paul Pogba connection, ably assisted by Wayne Rooney, was beginning to shine.

3. Nov. 19: 1-1 vs. Arsenal. The third straight game in which United drew at home, but the football was definitely getting better. Having beaten Arsenal 3-2 in February, United were twice impressive at home vs. the Gunners this year.

4. May 21: 2-1 vs. Crystal Palace. Urged on by Ryan Giggs, who rose from the bench perhaps knowing it was his final game after 27 years at the club, United showed resilience to come from behind and take the gloss off Alan Pardew’s dancing shoes. The soon-to-be-under-fire Rooney was masterful.

5. Apr. 13: 2-1 vs. West Ham. In an FA Cup quarterfinal replay at one of the form teams of 2015-16, Marouane Fellaini scored and had his best game of the year, overshadowing the Hammers’ Dimitri Payet.

Most surreal sight: Van Gaal lying on the floor in his technical area, legs kicking as he disputed a decision against Arsenal in February.

Louis van Gaal provided plenty of noteworthy moments before he was sacked as Manchester United manager in May.

Quote of the year: “Every human being who is grabbed by the hair, only with sex masochism, then it is allowed, but not in other situations.” — Van Gaal in May, after Marouane Fellaini’s hair was pulled by Leicester’s Robert Huth but United were denied a penalty 

Five worst performances

1. Jan. 9: 1-0 vs. Sheffield United (FA Cup third round)

2. Jan. 23: 0-1 vs. Southampton (Premier League)

3. Feb. 18: 1-2 vs. Midtjylland (Europa League Round of 32, first leg)

4. Mar. 10: 0-2 vs. Liverpool (Europa League Round of 16, first leg)

5. Oct. 23: 0-4 vs. Chelsea (Premier League)

The less said about each, the better.

The critical defeat: May 10: 2-3 vs. West Ham. The game was preceded by home fans attacking the United team coach as they approached the Boleyn Ground. A draw would have likely meant Champions League football and probably kept van Gaal in a job. United led 2-1 in the second half but couldn’t withstand late pressure.

An Old Trafford first: United’s game vs. Bournemouth in May was abandoned when a suspect package was found in the toilets. It turned out to be a dummy left behind after a training exercise.

Best United goal: Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick against Sunderland on Dec. 26.

Best opposition goal: Moussa Sow’s second-minute strike for Fenerbahce in a Nov. 3 Europa League game of three outstanding strikes, one of which came from Rooney.

Hard to believe it’s not Scholes: Michael Carrick is getting better with age. As for Paul Scholes, he has been a fierce — and often accurate — United critic in his role as a television analyst.

Five Rashford moments

1. Feb. 25: A two-goal debut vs. Midtjylland as United overcame a 2-1 reverse in the first leg to win 5-1 at home.

2. Feb. 28: Another brace followed in Rashford’s first league start, a 3-2 win against title-chasing Arsenal.

3. Apr. 13: Rashford’s own favourite, the winner at West Ham in the FA Cup quarterfinal replay.

4. Mar. 20: The only Mancunian on the pitch scored the only goal in the derby at Manchester City.

5. Aug. 27: Hull City away, last minute. See late, great winners below.

Marcus Rashford has scored 12 goals in 40 games since making his debut in February.

Best fan chant: (Sung to the tune of Sting’s “Englishman in New York.”) “Woah-oh, Mkhitaryan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He’s our midfield Armenian.”

Best United away following: West Ham in the FA Cup: 5,000 fans were present on a wild night in east London, when a double rainbow rose over the Chicken Run stand and Rashford saw United through. Derby away in the fourth round gets a notable mention.

Best away following at Old Trafford: Feyenoord were very loud in November, despite their team getting hammered 4-0. Thousands travelled without tickets, while many more made their presence known in home sections after the final whistle. The Dutch side brought 3,000; it could have been 15,000. Also, a notable mention to Crystal Palace fans at the FA Cup final.

“You could have come in a taxi” award for away fans at Old Trafford: The approximately 30 Zorya Luhansk fans, who attended September’s Europa League tie. Most of them were friendly Ukrainian expats who live in the north of England.

“You’ve come all this way for nothing” award: Around 100 fans travelled to Beijing for a friendly against Manchester City in August that was called off. United gave every supporter affected a signed home shirt and two tickets to a game.

Daftest away fans: The Liverpool supporters, who made their presence known in a United section at Old Trafford toward the end of the clubs’ Europa League tie. Trouble predictably ensued.

Silliest decision: Feyenoord halved United’s ticket allocation in September, because the Dutch club’s own fans had misbehaved during a previous game against Roma.

Best away team at Old Trafford: Manchester City on Sept. 10.

Best opposition player: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City).

Five late winners and ecstatic celebrations

1. Apr. 23 vs. Everton: Anthony Martial’s FA Cup semifinal winner in the final minute of stoppage time at Wembley. United won 2-1 against Everton, and their (then) No. 9 was lost in a crowd of fans with several of his teammates.

2. Dec. 14 vs. Crystal Palace: It looked like another draw until Ibrahimovic struck. And to think that some foolish United fans left before the final whistle.

3. Aug. 27 vs. Hull: 18-year-old Rashford converts from Rooney’s 92nd minute cross at a rainy KCOM Stadium. Cue frantic celebrations in front of the travelling support.

4. May 7 vs. Norwich: Rooney assists Juan Mata, whose left-footed strike rewards United’s dominance. The players celebrated by going to the fans, who had made the five-hour journey from Manchester.

5. Sep. 29 vs. Zorya Luhansk: Ibrahimovic scores his first goal in five games to secure a much-needed win in the Europa League that lifted United off the bottom of the group table.

The Mourinho high: In his mind, the 2-1 Community Shield victory over Leicester at Wembley on Aug. 7.

Jose Mourinho has had a mix of highs and lows since moving into the Old Trafford spotlight.

The Mourinho low: By the start of December, United had won only two of their previous 11 league matches, and the manager had been sent from the dugout to the stands. Twice.

Biggest rip-off: Outside finals, Midtjylland’s £71 ticket prices — they charged Southampton fans £22 earlier in the season — were the most expensive for travelling United supporters in club history. Also, £16,000 for a water bottle. 

Player of the year: David De Gea. Naturally. His penalty save against Romelu Lukaku helped United reach the FA Cup final and was just one highlight of his 2016. The goalkeeper was also named the club’s player of the year for the third season in a row.

Five who played for United in 2016

1. Joe Riley
2. Guillermo Varela
3. Regan Poole
4. Will Keane
5. Bastian Schweinsteiger

And a notable mention for James Weir, who came on in the 94th minute vs. Arsenal in February, didn’t touch the ball, never played for the club again during the season and was sold to Hull in the summer!

Friday Night Lights: Southampton’s August visit to Old Trafford was the first home game of 2016-17 and, with Mourinho smiling in his club suit, the buzz felt like it was back.

Biggest surprises on the pitch

For better: Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones forming an excellent central defensive partnership; Rojo has played every minute of the last nine league games. Notable mention to Antonio Valencia, who has established himself at right-back.

For worse: Luke Shaw’s regression. Ditto that of Anthony Martial, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay.

Eric who? Bailly, that’s who. It took all of 45 minutes vs. Leicester in the Community Shield for people to know how good he was.

Money talks: Paul Pogba, £89 million.

The wait goes on: For Wayne Rooney to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s scoring record for the club. He’s still two short.

So long, farewell: Giggs and van Gaal.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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