After finishing the 2013/14 season in a disappointing seventh place under David Moyes (and Ryan Giggs), the Red Devils could not afford to spend another term outside of the Champions League places and pulled out all the stops to regain entry into the competition.
Louis van Gaal – who had recently taken the Dutch international team to the World Cup final – was roped in and given a near-blank chequebook to assemble a side capable of getting back among Europe’s elite.
With stalwarts Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra all out of contract at the start of the season, and fringe players like Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck also shown the door (in total 18 players left the club during the season), reinforcements were clearly needed.
As a result, somewhere between £150-million and £200-million (depending on who you believe) was spent on bringing in Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Radamel Falcao (on loan) and later Victor Valdes.
After winning the International Champions Cup competition in pre-season, the Premier League campaign did not start well for Van Gaal, as United lost their first match, to Swansea, at Old Trafford. Draws against Sunderland and Burnley followed and another defeat – away to Leicester – meant Van Gaal was under early pressure.
After beating Everton and West Ham, more points were dropped against West Brom, Chelsea and Man City, but soon a run of positive results would see United move up the table.
Despite not playing particularly well for the most part, the Red Devils soon found themselves in the Champions League positions, albeit with a difficult run of fixtures to come in March and April.
With only a few points between United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton, a tight finish was expected and many predicted that the Manchester club will miss out on the top four altogether. However, the tough run that followed also coincided with their best form of the season, as victories were attained over Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City in consecutive weeks to all but secure Champions League qualification.
A run of three consecutive losses followed but by that time the collective confidence was drained from the chasing trio and, in the end, United finished a healthy six points in front of Spurs to clinch fourth place.
Player of the Year: David de Gea
Before the season started, the 24-year-old Spaniard was regarded as a talented but perhaps inconsistent stopper, but came of age during the term. While he was consistently brilliant throughout – and as a result was named in the PFA Team of the Year – his string of Man of the Match performances in the first half of the season largely kept the Old Trafford club in touch with the Champions League spots. No surprises then that he is being linked with a move to Real Madrid…
Credit must also go to Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini for the way in which they turned around their Manchester United careers. Last season both players were regularly slated for their perceived inability to contribute to the United cause, but under a new boss with a clearer idea of how he wants his side to play, both players have become reliable performers.
Disappointment of the Year: The failures of Di Maria and Falcao to establish themselves at Old Trafford
Having joined United from Real Madrid for a fee rumoured to be just below £60-million – a British transfer record – Argentina international Di Maria started his career at the Old Trafford club well, before going off the boil in the second half of the season.
Falcao was regarded as one of the best strikers in the world before the Colombian suffered a knee injury before the 2014 World Cup, and was brought to Old Trafford as a bit of a punt. Considering the loan fee United had to pay to bring him there – a reported £16-million – and the exorbitant wages he is undoubtedly on, the transfer was an unmitigated disaster. He finished with only four goals from 29 matches in all competitions and looked a forlorn figure whenever he did play.
While crashing out of the domestic cups during the early stages were sources for disappointment, the target for United was always to get back into the Champions League. A fourth-place finish means Van Gaal has achieved his minimum target for the season, although they have to come through the final round of qualification to ensure their entry into the group stages. That said, one has to go back a decade for the last time an English side failed to win their qualifier, so United will certainly be expected to get into the main event.
FOX Sports Asia season rating: 7/10