The 5 big questions that will define Manchester United's 2016/17
It's been quite the summer for Manchester United fans: with the appointment of a managerial behemoth, as well as the acquisition of a handful of the world's best players, the start of the season can't come around soon enough for the Old Trafford faithful.
The outlook may be rosier than it has been for a few years, but Jose Mourinho's men still have plenty to prove. Can they silence the doubters? Or will fans be yearning for the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson once more?
1. Can Rooney rediscover his form up front?
If anyone can man-manage a player to success it’s Mourinho, but this union may have come a little too late in Rooney’s career
Wayne Rooney came close to leaving United for a second time in the summer of 2013, with Ferguson's decision to play him in a deeper role a key part of his unhappiness. "Maybe when I'm a bit older, losing my legs a bit, I can go back there," the England international said in October that year.
In May 2016, Rooney appeared to acknowledge that time had come, a few years after most fans had reached the same conclusion. "I think sometimes you have to make choices in your career and at the minute it is probably better for me to play deeper," he said before the FA Cup final. "I am sure for next season, that is probably where I see myself playing."
That was until Mourinho was appointed and categorically stated there was no way he would play Rooney in midfield, as well as confirming he would be his captain for the season ahead.
After three disappointing years, with Rooney averaging just 12 goals a season in the league (albeit playing in a deeper role for some of that time), can he really turn things around in his 15th Premier League season? If anyone can man-manage a player to success it’s Mourinho, but this union may have come a little too late in Rooney’s career. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him ushered out of Old Trafford next summer, à la Lampard at Chelsea.
2. Will United’s defence be good enough to win a title?
Chris Smalling was largely excellent but his form dipped in the final few months of last season, while Phil Jones has been in steady decline for a few years
While United's defensive record last season was terrific, it was the result of Louis van Gaal's conservative tactics rather than a solid backline. The defence, in fact, was very average, and the goals conceded column would not have made for such positive reading were it not for world-class goalkeeper David de Gea.
Luke Shaw’s injury was a huge blow - neither Marcos Rojo nor Matteo Darmian were competent replacements - and his return should be a huge boost, assuming he can recapture his best form quickly. At right-back, Antonio Valencia is pacy but not a natural defender and Tim Fosu-Mensah does not seem to have the trust of his manager.
Chris Smalling was largely excellent but his form dipped in the final few months of last season, while Phil Jones has been in steady decline for a few years and struggles to stay fit for more than a few games at a time. Eric Bailly is potentially great but much depends on how well he transitions from La Liga, and Daley Blind is not really a certain-back in the Mourinho mould.
United need another experienced central defender to come in before the end of the window; if the Red Devils are going to be playing more attacking football this season, they need a strong rearguard to protect them.
3. Will Rashford still get the opportunity to make a difference?
While all United supporters are delighted that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has joined the club, the Swede's arrival will almost certainly cost Rashford his place in the starting line-up
The FA Cup triumph in May was the obvious highlight in what was an otherwise depressing 2015/16 for United, with the emergence of Marcus Rashford a close second. The local lad, a lifelong supporter of the club, lived the dream: he scored twice on his debut before netting another brace against Arsenal days later, and then went on to grab the winner away to rivals Manchester City.
While all United supporters are delighted that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has joined the club, the Swede's arrival will almost certainly cost Rashford his place in the starting line-up. As Mourinho pointed out, United could play 60 games this season, meaning there will be plenty of chances for Rashford to play, but it will be more difficult for him to get a solid run in the team and build on any momentum he's able to build up.
Mourinho will have to find a way to keep the teeanger's spirits high, whether by finding him a new position so both Ibrahimovic and Rashford can start or making sure he receives adequate playing time up top.
Rashford scores against Arsenal
4. Will Mourinho unravel again?
His fall from grace was even more dramatic in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, while Mourinho also left Real Madrid under a cloud
It's now well known that Mourinho tends to implode after three years at a club, with whatever magic he uses to bring about initial success somehow evaporating as time goes on.
Even during his highly successful first stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese really should have won the title on three occasions rather than two. Mourinho added Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko to his squad in the summer of 2006, strengthening right down the spine of the team; United, by contrast, only bought Michael Carrick and had not won the league in three years. It was Ferguson's charges who claimed the prize that year, though, and Mourinho was sacked just a month into the following campaign.
His fall from grace was even more dramatic in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, while Mourinho also left Real Madrid under a cloud. Perhaps the same will happen again at United, but United fans will be hoping that without a Roman Abramovich or Florentino Perez lurking in the shadows, Mourinho might be able to settle in for the long-term at Old Trafford.
5. Will Pogba prove to be worth the money?
£100 million is an awful lot of money, and many people - including Paul Scholes, whose return from retirement led to Paul Pogba’s exit from the club in 2012 - don't think the Frenchman's worth it.
United, though, can afford to splurge such a sum on their former midfielder, and if Pogba proves to be the final piece of the jigsaw that helps United win the title, he'll be worth every penny. After all, United earned £96 million last season from television revenue and Premier League prize money alone - and that’s when they finished fifth.
The only issue will be whether Pogba can live up to the title of being the world’s most expensive player of all-time and not succumb to the pressure his price tag brings.
Predicted starting XI (vs Bournemouth)
Starting XI: David de Gea; Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw; Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera; Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Henrikh Mkhitaryan; Zlatan Ibrahimovic.