When Jose Mourinho was asked what needed to change after Manchester United ’s meek Champions League exit to Sevilla in 2018, he was typically blunt: “Everything.”
Two-and-a-half years on, as United prepare to face Sevilla for the first time since then in Sunday’s Europa League semi-final in Cologne, Mourinho’s declaration has become a reality. Everything, it seems, has changed at United – and for the better.
The United side of today is unrecognisable from the one that slumped to an insipid 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford, a result which ultimately proved the beginning of the end for Mourinho.
Although United finished second in the league that season, they lost the FA Cup final.
And Mourinho took on the board over a perceived lack of support over signings, the fall-out ending with his acrimonious sacking midway through the following campaign.
His successor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has deliberately taken United in a different direction, jettisoning older stars in favour of younger, hungrier, more dynamic players, with the emphasis on pace and youth.
It’s an approach that has already yielded a third-placed finish in the Premier League this season.
The likes of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Alexis Sanchez, Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, all of whom started against Sevilla under Mourinho, have been sold, while Chris Smalling spent the past season on loan at Roma.
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They have been replaced by younger players like Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Brandon Williams, and Anthony Martial, all of whom bring a dynamism, assurance and youthful spark that was sorely lacking in Mourinho’s moribund side.
Conclusive proof of that change can be found in the fact that the average age of Mourinho’s side that faced Sevilla was 27, while the team Solskjaer is expected to select on Sunday will have an average age of 25, or even 24 if David De Gea and Fred play ahead of Sergio Romero and Nemanja Matic.
Solskjaer is looking to build on that youthful approach by signing 20-year-old England forward Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund this summer, while other players on United’s radar include West Ham ’s Declan Rice, 21, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, 24, and Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, 23.
When United faced Sevilla at Old Trafford back in March 2018, they managed just three shots on target, one of which was a Lukaku goal that ultimately counted for nothing.
Solskjaer’s United will surely be more threatening than that tomorrow, having had 14 shots on target in the quarter-final win over Copenhagen, and a whopping 26 in total.
In the wake of the exit to Sevilla, Mourinho went on a 12-minute diatribe, highlighting United’s feeble recent record in Europe, pointing out the exception was the 2017 Europa League triumph under him.
The purpose of Mourinho’s rant, in which he sarcastically used the word “heritage” to describe United’s mediocre recent European record, was to claim losing to Sevilla should not have come as a shock, that fans had to accept that was the level the club was at.
Now, there is no such pessimism or recrimination, no such ‘reality checks’ or lowering of expectations from Old Trafford boss Solskjaer as he continues to plot a route back to the top for the former Champions League winners.
United are back in the Champions League and two wins away from a first trophy under the Norwegian, one that would underline the progress made under him and act as a springboard for a potential title push next season.
The contrast from two-and-a-half years ago could not be greater. Solskjaer and his players must seize the moment by beating Sevilla to remain on course for the trophy that could unlock a new era of success for United.
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