In the three and a half years since Sir Alex Ferguson has retired, there have been occasions when I’ve looked at the players on the pitch and struggled to like many of them.
You don’t have to go too far back to find players who you were happy to see wearing our shirt. Even aside from the superstars, players like Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva did themselves and the club proud. Whatever you may have thought about Rio Ferdinand’s determination to commercialise everything, there were no doubts over how much he loved United, and still does.
Characters like Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson are a thing of the past, but under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, it was difficult to find players who came anywhere close.
Angel Di Maria was a fantastic talent and Van Gaal didn’t know where to use him, but he had nothing about him. There was no spine. No fight. He gave up so readily the moment things didn’t go his way. Look at Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian and Marouane Fellaini. Not even discussing ability, they’re just so beige. There’s nothing about them.
Under Jose Mourinho, predictably, there’s been the beginnings of change. Players with huge personalities have been added to the dressing room and players who were already there have some added grit.
So, looking at 2016, here are United’s best outfield players.
The Spaniard has scored against Manchester City and Arsenal in 2016, as well as the all-important equaliser in the FA Cup final. He also scored the first goal of the Mourinho era too, something many media outlets had deemed an impossibility, given it was without question that Mata would be the first player sold last summer.
We already knew what a nice bloke Mata was. He was already well liked by large sections of the fan base. But the fight he’s shown in the latter half of 2016 has been impressive, even if a bit surprising. I wasn’t sure whether he would have it in him.
Mourinho didn’t rate him, got rid of him at Chelsea, and it would have been easy for Mata to expect more of the same at United. But he’s worked hard and proven Mourinho wrong.
Game after game, Mata has put in brilliant performances. He’s looking more like the player that stole the show for Rafa Benitez at Chelsea than he has ever done for United.
Some of Mourinho’s biggest mistakes have been taking Mata off too early when he’s been playing a blinder and United have been forced on to the back foot as a result.
Competition is stiff in his position but we are better off for having him in the side.
Watching the Frenchman make a mockery of the ‘what a waste of money’ headlines has been thoroughly enjoyable. A young player, in a brand new league, hitting the ground running, is an impressive achievement.
Martial scored United’s first goal of 2016 in our 2-1 win over Swansea. He went on to score plenty more in the second half of last season and finished the campaign as our top scorer.
Watching him fearlessly run at opposition defences was a sight to behold, particularly for fans who were so drained from the dire football that Van Gaal forced us to watch.
While I’ve said that Jesse Lingard’s goal was our best of the year, for the technique and the occasion, Martial’s winner against Everton in the semi-final was possibly my favourite. The joy of watching the ball hit the back of the net and the euphoria that followed was the first time in a long time we had experienced anything like that. It was like being transported to the good ol’ days.
After being our hero last season, he’s struggled to reach the same heights under Mourinho though.
He’s shown signs of what he can do but he hasn’t been given much of a run in the team. Still, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic taking on so much of the goal scoring burden, Martial is the joint second highest scorer this season.
Had Herrera been in the starting line-up throughout 2016, I would likely have named him as the best player of the year.
For whatever reason, both Van Gaal and Mourinho overlooked him. Despite United’s best matches under the Dutchman coming when Herrera was in the team, he wasn’t trusted by our former manager.
At the start of this season, Mourinho preferred Fellaini to our Spaniard. It didn’t take him too long to realise the error of his ways though.
Herrera is a better version of N’Golo Kante, with leadership skills thrown in to match, as well as clearly being very dedicated to the club. He can’t speak highly enough of United and his feelings for the fans are strong.
If he keeps this form up though he will be a strong contender for the Sir Matt Busby player of the season.
Manchester United’s best player of 2016: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
It may seem silly to rate a player so highly who has only been here for half of the year, but when you look at the impact he’s made in that time, you can’t ignore him.
In fact Ibrahimovic has scored as many goals by Christmas as last season’s top scorer did all campaign tells you something about how impressive the Swede has been.
After a bright start, he went through a dry patch and missed chances which cost us points. However, he’s more than made up for that in the games that followed.
Even if Zlatan wasn’t 35 and just a few months in to his career in England, what he has achieved so far would deserve recognition.
Now let’s what he can do in the big games in 2017.