“I would go for a seven out of ten. The reason for that is that it’s been a bit of a tough ride for Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson left. In came David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal and at least Van Gaal managed to get an FA Cup. Whereas Mourinho has won the League Cup and Europa League. You can add the Charity Shield and say they won three trophies but I wouldn’t go as far as that. Those two trophies though are a solid step forward but there is still a lot of room for improvement next season.”
The 52 year old is widely respected in the game having spent six successful years as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant in a dominant era that secured a Champions League and four league titles for the club. It is little surprise then that he baulks at the suggestion that last term was more than just the first signs of a recovery but rather a success in itself.
“No, Manchester United must be competing for the Premier League and be competing again for the Champions League. It is very important that they have a good start next season to make sure they’re going to be there or thereabouts in the title fight.”
Where Meulensteen does offer unequivocal approval however is towards United’s summer targets with strikers evidently the priority. Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata and Torino’s Andrea Belotti appear to top the shopping list with the Spanish frontman favoured to end the ‘wasteful’ culture that cost the Reds so dearly last year.
“Morata is a good striker, he’s mobile, agile, and creates chances. The same can be said of Belotti but both would be coming from abroad and would have to adapt to the Premier League which we all know is difficult. If Belotti comes in it’s important that he scores early and get the monkey off his back. Then he could be a good fit. For me though it would be Morata. We haven’t seen enough of him lately but then again it is extremely hard to get into that Real team.”
Not that Morata is the Dutchman’s ideal choice to replace the departing slain giant of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“I really like Mbappe. That would be brilliant though I don’t know how genuine the interest is. But if they were to get him they’d have pace, goal-scoring opportunities; he would shake up United’s front-line. He has unbelievable potential in my opinion.”
With all this talk of elite marksmen it is easy to forget that United already possess a scintillating talent in attack capable of scoring for fun if given the opportunity. Having known Marcus Rashford for over half of the teenager’s life Meulensteen is concerned over what a mega-bucks move for a centre-forward this summer might mean for the local hero’s development.
“I like Marcus and I’ve worked with him when he was a little kid coming in to the Cliff at seven years of age. He came in with a smile and left with a smile. He couldn’t wait to start training and there was only one level of energy that he would bring.”
“I’m so happy that he has already got so many games and he’s only going to get better the more that he plays and the more things that he gets exposed to. A lot depends on what type of striker Mourinho brings in. If they spend a great deal of money on someone there might be a chance that Marcus is again shifted out to the left or right. He can play there for sure but his best position is up front. I really hope that any new signings don’t side-line Marcus completely because that would be a real shame.”
Whether Rashford steps up to become the main man come August or is superseded by a new signing, strikers are typically only as good as the service they’re provided with - which is why Meulensteen is particularly keen for another United target to commit to the club before the window closes, namely Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic.
“Perisic has good experience and pace and could come in and create things. He is comfortable on the ball, can beat a man and has a fantastic pass. It’s important that United have a man who can open up defences with one pass and he has that. He can offer them another level of a goal threat.”
It is noteworthy that of all of the Croatian’s qualities it is his experience that Meulensteen points out first and though the youthful feel of this United side excites the veteran coach he also believes there is a steep learning curve ahead.
“There is a difference in playing in the Premier League and playing for Manchester United. You have to turn up every single game and not put in a few good minutes. This is what these young players have to come to terms with. They have to reach a level where, no matter their form, they have to make a difference. That is the standard required for Manchester United and Mourinho will now be expecting this from his players, from Martial and Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. They have to ensure that they perform week in, week out when they’re called on.”
In this regard the trio mentioned are hardly short of previous examples to learn from with the ‘Class of 92’ and a great many other kids quickly growing into men on the Old Trafford turf and becoming key figures in a highly successful period for the club. Meulensteen however picks out another over-achieving young talent who he himself played a formative role in moulding into a superstar. A certain player by the name of Ronaldo.
“I knew he would reach such heights from the very moment that I first met him. You saw a tremendously talented young boy but you also saw a very committed boy who knew exactly what he wanted. Exactly. He knew that he wanted to win as many trophies as he could. He knew that he wanted to play for Real Madrid at some point and that United were a fantastic station to help him on the way to form him and shape him under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. He has never stopped and always got better year in, year out. I’ve got the utmost admiration for him and I’m proud that Manchester United helped him get where he is. He is an unbelievable professional and a fantastic human being.”