Ranking Every Player for Manchester United in 2016/17 Premier League Season
When broadcaster Michael Parkinson was interviewed by Irish sports podcast Second Captains, he summed up the appeal of sport in a poignant fashion.
He said: "It's not war and death and famine. It's to persuade us of a world outside that—that's why sport is important."
On a day when Manchester is suffering such sorrow and it feels incongruous to read, write and think about sport, Parkinson's eloquent words ring true and offer some comfort.
So because a lot of people care about Manchester United, and reading, writing and thinking about the club makes them feel better, maybe what follows will offer a few minutes of distraction.
United's season has been mixed. The Premier League performance was thoroughly underwhelming, though there were high points along the way. The EFL Cup win was a great distraction and a good chance for manager Jose Mourinho to win his first meaningful silverware with the club.
And the UEFA Europa League campaign will end with a final appearance against Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday.
Performance in all competitions is considered here. Some of these decisions are inherently arbitrary, but hopefully they will be explained along the way.
So with love for the incredible city of Manchester on all of our minds, let's crack on with the rankings.
Not Getting a Ranking: The Kids and Those Who Have Moved on
It would be foolish to include Memphis Depay or Morgan Schneiderlin here, though both turned out for the Red Devils in the 2016/17 league campaign.
The Dutchman made four league appearances as a sub and Schneiderlin had three, also off the bench, but neither made a substantial impact.
Those youngsters who only featured against Crystal Palace on the final day of the season are also excluded here given their contributions are almost impossible to compare to those who featured more often. However, it is worth stating they were universally impressive.
Demi Mitchell played at left-back and showed off his attacking chops; Josh Harrop stole the show with a wonderful goal; Scott McTominay looked assured and composed in the centre of the park; Joel Pereira was largely untroubled in goal but did not put a foot wrong. Even the 16-year-old Angel Gomes got a run, making a couple of nice touches.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe played a little more, but neither hit five appearances. The former can blame a poorly timed injury for not getting more minutes on the pitch at the end of the season, but he has generally not been considered for first-team action—the Palace game was his only start, and he totalled just 96 league minutes on the pitch all told.
Tuanzebe deserves special mention for his superb performance against Alexis Sanchez in United's 2-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal. He succeeded in his mission to negate the Chilean as an attacking threat, and a big future awaits the reserve team player of the year.
22. Luke Shaw
At the start of the season, it would have been surprising and disappointing to discover Luke Shaw would be ranked so low here.
After suffering the broken leg that kept him out of contention for most of last season, many were hoping Shaw would push on this season.
Instead, he has spent most of the term on the sidelines, either through injury or non-selection, and he appears to have no trust from manager Jose Mourinho and has hardly been able to contribute.
When the 21-year-old has played, for the most part, he has not been able to impose himself in the opposition third with any regularity, though his defensive work has been relatively sound.
This summer would seem to be make or break for the young left-back's United career, but given Mourinho's public statements about the player over the course of the campaign, it seems unlikely that it will work out.
21. Chris Smalling
Last season's fourth-placed finisher, Chris Smalling, has had a campaign to forget. It has been blighted by injury, and he has been surpassed in the central-defensive pecking order by Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly.
In the rankings in which he finished fourth, we noted that his performances had slumped toward the back end of the season, and that has continued to be the case this time out.
There has been an absence of certainty, with his air-header against Middlesbrough a fine example of the kind of mistakes he has made.
Redemption does not seem impossible—last season's performances were a vast improvement on the season before, for example—but it would be no surprise if this turns out to have been his last season in a United shirt.
20. Ashley Young
Ashley Young did not do much wrong this season, but he did not do much right, either.
With eight league starts and four substitute appearances, only Luke Shaw, Sergio Romero, the kids and the players who have left have had fewer Premier League minutes than him this season.
If he is at the club at the start of next season, it will surely be in the same capacity as a utility full-back to be called upon in times of deep injury crisis.
19. Wayne Rooney
History will remember 2016/17 as the season Wayne Rooney broke the all-time goalscoring record at Manchester United with a magnificent free-kick. That should probably be just about all his performances this year are remembered for.
This once-electric and vital footballer has clearly run his race at the top level. It has been coming for some time, and Mourinho's artful handling of the situation—and Rooney's own willingness to give his all in a reduced role—should be commended.
The 31-year-old has conducted himself with a lot of dignity in what must have been a difficult situation for him. Since he was dropped early in the season, his name on the starting XI has meant either a serious injury crisis or that Mourinho has rested key players. His time has clearly passed.
Rooney is an all-time United great, but if he wants regular football, it can no longer be at a club competing to be among the elite.
18. Daley Blind
Daley Blind started the season as part of the first-choice centre-back pairing. That seems like a long time ago, though injuries and suspensions mean he is likely to reprise the role in the Europa League final.
Since his high-profile mistakes in the Manchester derby, the player has been reduced to a utility role, and it is hard to recall his most recent good game.
His ranking this low on the list is a reflection of that lack of standout performances and the fact he hasn't been able to make any of the positions he can play his own.
However, he is a fine footballer, and—whether at United or elsewhere—better seasons lie ahead for the Dutchman.
17. Michael Carrick
Michael Carrick has been a vital component for United since his arrival in the summer of 2006. A decade on, he has been awarded a well-deserved testimonial.
And he has played a crucial role this season. It was his arrival and the accompanying switch to 4-3-3 that triggered the Red Devils' best form of the campaign. However, the player—like his team—has suffered as the season has progressed.
There have been a few more uncharacteristic sloppy passes, and though the 35-year-old never relied on speed, his diminishing physical abilities are making his lack of pace look even more pronounced when opponents are on the ball.
If he stays another season, it will surely be for the occasional cameo, to provide experience in the dressing room rather than to get a lot of time on the pitch. The fact it would be a massive shock were he to start the Europa League final on Wednesday speaks volumes.
16. Matteo Darmian
Almost no one would have expected Matteo Darmian to end the season as Mourinho's first-choice left-back. Shaw, Blind or even Cameron Borthwick-Jackson seemed more likely candidates at the end of last term.
However, the manager clearly sees something in his Italian defender. And in fairness, there is a degree of defensive stability he brings to the party.
Given Antonio Valencia has almost unlimited licence to get forward on the right, perhaps Mourinho likes Darmian's lack of attacking intent. It does, however, often mean United's attack looks a little unbalanced.
Darmian pips Carrick here for having his manager's trust and for some decent defensive displays, but that was a close decision. It's reasonable to think this is a position Mourinho will look to upgrade in the summer.
15. Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini was booed at Old Trafford in the wake of his worst moment of the season. In the previous away game at Everton, he had been brought on late in the game to shore things up at the back but instead clumsily gave away a penalty. His season has improved since then, however.
Though he still looks a liability at times, there have been crucial goals—he scored in the semi-finals of both the EFL Cup and the Europa League—and United fans have rallied behind him in the face of that jeering.
Early in the season, he even attracted plaudits for his decent performances alongside Paul Pogba.
Generally speaking, United look less fluid, less dynamic and less secure with Fellaini in the side. There are exceptions—enough to have him above Darmian, for example, but not enough to earn him a higher place in the list.
The length of his United career (four seasons) speaks volumes for the club's drop in quality over the past few years.
14. Phil Jones
Phil Jones needed a good season, and most important of all, he needed a season free from injury.
He did not get one, and thus remains well outside the top 10 in this ranking. He improved on his levels of involvement last season, with 1,585 minutes of league football—just 15 minutes under Fellaini and more than Rooney, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but he could not avoid missing another chunk of another season.
When he did play, he was solid for the most part. For that reason, he beats out Fellaini, having made fewer crucial errors.
13. Anthony Martial
Last season's No. 1 in the rankings drops to 13th this time around. The positives have been there; remarkable performances against West Ham United in the League Cup and Watford in the league stand out, as do his two assists against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup and his goal and assist against Burnley in the league at Turf Moor.
But the sense he is not one of Mourinho's guys is hard to shake. The manager's handling of the 21-year-old has been one of the biggest knocks against his overall performance this season. Martial has massive potential and talent, but he has only periodically displayed it.
While the player himself must take some of the responsibility—and some of it can probably be put down to second-season syndrome—it is hard not to think a different approach from his manager might have yielded better results.
He is ranked above Jones and Fellaini on the basis of how brilliant he has been at his best, but inconsistency and irregular appearances put paid to a higher finish.
12. Sergio Romero
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero has done a decent job when called upon this season.
He finishes outside of the top 10 because his performances have mostly been confined to cup competitions, though the fact he will likely start United's most important game for a long time on Wednesday clearly shows Mourinho trusts him.
David De Gea remains the superior 'keeper, but this has been a good season for the Argentina international.
11. David De Gea
And speaking of De Gea, the three time United fans' player of the year has had a lot less to do this time out.
As the debate rages around what kind of season it has been, the fact the goalkeeper was not in contention for the club's Player of the Year award this year has to be a big indicator of progress.
De Gea has had periods when he looked perhaps a half-step below his brilliant best, but his performances against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal recently showed him at his superb best.
Given another summer of transfer rumours is just about to kick off, many United fans will be hoping they have not seen the last of the Spain international, but losing him now would be less disastrous than at any point in the past three seasons.
10. Jesse Lingard
United made two trips to Wembley Stadium this season, and Jesse Lingard scored in both. Following last season's FA Cup final winner, he scored a wonder goal in the Community Shield and slotted home a composed finish in the League Cup final.
He divides opinion among the United faithful, coming in for a lot of stick on social media, but Mourinho clearly values his energy, movement and footballing intelligence.
He has averaged the same number of key passes per 90 minutes of league football as Mkhitaryan. And particularly when deployed centrally, he has shown a capacity to disrupt opposition defences with his running.
The 24-year-old is not the finished article, but he is clearly a late developer compared to his peers—something that makes sense given his small frame.
Overall, though, Lingard has had a decent season, and he deserves some credit for that. Who would bet against him bagging another goal in a final on Wednesday night?
9. Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Henrikh Mkhitaryan's season has been perhaps the strangest of any player in the United squad.
Mourinho initially sidelined the player and then brought him into the fold, at which point he looked brilliant. He scored crucial goals, particularly but not exclusively in the Europa League.
He scored United's goal of the season against Sunderland, an amazing scorpion kick.
Then he went off the boil a bit. Mourinho publicly criticised him again, and it took him a while to recover. He hasn't scored since the Europa League quarter-final against RSC Anderlecht—having struck in both legs of that tie.
All in all, his debut campaign had incredible moments and long flat spells, some of which are down to the player and some probably down to Mourinho's eccentricities. Much better should be ahead if his manager can help him maintain a level of consistency next season.
He sits in ninth place here for how good he has been when he has been on song.
8. Juan Mata
A player familiar with receiving complex and hard-to-fathom treatment from Mourinnho, Juan Mata was widely expected to be surplus to requirements once the Portuguese took charge of United.
Instead, he has been a crucial part of the Red Devils attack for most of the season, scoring 10 goals in all competitions.
The Spaniard has linked up well with the new signings and looks at his best with good players around him. He has had to do a lot of defensive work given he has almost always played off the right flank, but he has never complained and remains a vital part of United's squad.
It would still be nice to see him get a regular run out at No. 10, but most United observers have surely given up on that happening.
He finishes above Mkhitaryan for his consistency—in addition to his goals, Mata delivered more key passes per 90 minutes of league football than any other United player.
7. Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford started the season in fine form, and he then endured a long goalscoring drought while he bedded into the role of wide forward.
However, since Zlatan Ibrahimovic's injury in April, the 19-year-old has returned to the role up top in which he looks his best and is back in goalscoring form.
The free-kick against Celta Vigo in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final was vital, and it was a brilliant cross from Rashford that led to Fellaini's goal in the second leg. His strike against Chelsea at Old Trafford in the league gave United huge momentum in that game.
In general, his work at centre-forward, the improvement in his playmaking abilities and his willingness to give his all when playing out of position earn him this decent position in the rankings.
6. Marcos Rojo
No one expected Marcos Rojo to be one of United's best performers this season, but it is inarguable that he was.
Away from the left-back position in which he has always struggled, the Argentina international's return to centre-back was a revelation.
His tough-tackling is no surprise, but his leadership and communication was excellent too—helping his partnership with Eric Bailly no end. Rojo's absence through injury toward the end of the season came as a huge blow, something few United fans thought they would say.
Comparing his performances with Rashford's is a challenge given they serve such different purposes in the team, but Rojo gets sixth spot by virtue of the surprise factor and just how consistent he became as the season progressed.
5. Eric Bailly
Now we come to the top five. Each of them could have been a contender for the top spot.
Eric Bailly has been a revelation. In what should have been a bedding-in season, he has been United's best centre-back—their saviour on many occasions.
He is a huge fan favourite and has risen to the United challenge with aplomb. His absence because of injury and the Africa Cup of Nations meant he missed out on a higher place in these rankings—every player who finished above him here played more minutes in the league this season. Other than De Gea, though, they are the only players who did.
Overall, his signing has been an unequivocal positive for United in 2016/17.
4. Paul Pobga
Paul Pogba has had a good first season back at United. The casual observer might be surprised by that statement given there seems to be some kind of consensus he has underdelivered, but those who have been paying close attention know how important he has been.
The most obvious point in his favour is just how limp United looked in his absence. There were games in which he failed to produce—Liverpool at home in the league being the standout example—but for the most part, Pogba generated chance after chance for his colleagues this season.
Across the course of the league season, the France international made 57 key passes for his team-mates. He should have a lot more assists than the four he accrued. He should probably have more than the five goals he managed in the league too considering how often he hit the woodwork.
There have been bad games, but not all that many of them. For the most part, Pogba has delivered in a team that has failed to match him.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
With 28 goals in all competitions, in spite of being out of action from April 20, Ibrahimovic should have been a shoo-in for player of the year.
And those goals mean he deserves his lofty spot here. His was a remarkable free transfer, and his level of performance and output at 35 was truly impressive.
The thing stopping him from finishing higher up the list, though, is all those missed chances. He tops Opta's "Big Chances Missed" category for the Premier League by a long way, with 18.
This is one of those times when the stats reflect what it felt like to watch the player in action. He bailed the team out a lot—not least in the League Cup final, wherein he was by far the biggest contributor to the win over Southampton—but his profligacy was a problem in many of those draws United recorded.
It was great fun watching him at United, though, and the chances he took will be remembered longer than the chances he missed. He richly deserves his third-placed finish here.
2. Ander Herrera
Ander Herrera has had a great season. He was voted fans' player of the year in the club's end-of-season awards, and though he does not finish top here, he was a worthy winner of that honour.
He has adapted to a new role under Mourinho, much more defensive-minded than his playmaking duties at Athletic Bilbao or for Louis van Gaal's United, and he has taken to it with apparent ease.
He turned in what was probably the best individual performance of any United player this season in a one-off game when he managed to mark Eden Hazard into irrelevance when Chelsea came to Old Trafford. The efficacy of his marking was impressive, but what was remarkable was that he added a goal and an assist to his defensive duties.
Ibrahimovic and Pogba could both argue their case to finish ahead of Herrera, but the decision to have him in second place was taken on the basis that he had fewer bad games than either of them.
1. Antonio Valencia
In a team featuring Pogba and Ibrahimovic, it is remarkable that Antonio Valencia ends up in first place. But this is deserved.
The Ecuador international has enjoyed a vast upturn in form since Mourinho's arrival last summer, becoming one of the best full-backs in the game. His defensive work has been practically mistake-free—a huge step up on last season—and he has also found his attacking mojo again.
He is almost never afraid to take on his opposite number when he has the ball at his feet, and while his delivery is still not the best, the cliche of Valencia getting to the byline before drilling the ball into the nearest defender's shins has not applied this time out. There has been a conscious attempt to mix up his crosses.
Though others have delivered more memorable moments than Valencia, no one can even come close to matching him for consistency. For that reason, the biggest surprise package of the season richly deserves top spot.
Advanced data per WhoScored.com where not otherwise stated.