What United need to make the cru­cial step up next sea­son

Squad have plenty of scope for im­prove­ment but Sol­sk­jaer des­per­ately needs club to de­liver in this trans­fer win­dow

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Football - By James Ducker

For the first time in 31 years, Manch­ester United have gone three sea­sons with­out a tro­phy. That is a worry, right?

It is not a good look, and it in­ten­si­fies the pres­sure to de­liver sil­ver­ware next sea­son, but Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer has been in charge for only half of that time and was tasked with a re­build that was never go­ing to be a quick or easy fix.

The United of 2019-20 will be re­mem­bered as the nearly men. Sun­day’s 2-1 Europa League de­feat by Sevilla in Cologne was the club’s third semi-fi­nal exit this term af­ter de­feats by Manch­ester City and Chelsea in the League Cup and FA Cup re­spec­tively. But the dis­ap­point­ment has been soft­ened by a top-three fin­ish in the Premier League and a re­turn to Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball next sea­son.

Some­where be­tween the con­trast­ing ide­olo­gies of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mour­inho, and a decade of abysmal re­cruit­ment, United lost not only their way but their iden­tity so a “cul­tural re­boot” is un­der­pin­ning Sol­sk­jaer’s at­tempt to get the club back on top. Old Traf­ford in­sid­ers note that

Jur­gen Klopp went 3½ years be­fore win­ning a tro­phy with Liver­pool dur­ing his An­field re­build and, even if ev­ery­thing went to plan for Sol­sk­jaer, he is likely to need a sim­i­lar length of time.

So are there en­cour­ag­ing signs?

United had the youngest av­er­age start­ing XI in the Premier League last sea­son at 25 years and 96 days. It is a largely in­ex­pe­ri­enced team with plenty of scope for growth, even if their lack of nous has been ap­par­ent.

They need to be much more cute in pos­ses­sion, learn how to take the sting out of games, press with more co­he­sion and, if you lis­tened to the num­ber of times Sol­sk­jaer and his as­sis­tant, Michael Car­rick, shouted to “get in shape” against Sevilla, the team’s de­fen­sive struc­ture re­mains a work in progress.

There are green shoots. Seventy-eight of United’s 112 goals were scored by play­ers aged 25 or un­der, the best record of any team in Europe’s big five leagues. An­thony Mar­tial, Mar­cus Rash­ford and Ma­son Green­wood ac­counted for 63 of them.

In the list of most goals scored by play­ers un­der 25 in those leagues, Mar­tial was fifth with 23, Rash­ford sixth with 22 and Green­wood joint 10th with 18 af­ter a de­but cam­paign when he be­came the high­est scor­ing teenager in a sea­son in United’s his­tory, eclips­ing Ge­orge Best and Wayne Rooney. Eighth on that list was Jadon San­cho, the Borus­sia Dort­mund winger who Sol­sk­jaer is ea­ger to sign.

Un­der­per­form­ing: United first team­ers David de Gea (left) and Juan Mata

But United had 46 shots in two games against Sevilla and Copen­hagen and scored twice – from the spot. Are they ruth­less enough?

No, in short, and that is a rea­son why Sol­sk­jaer tried to sign the Nor­way striker, Er­ling Haa­land, in Jan­uary and still wants a cen­tre­for­ward.

They are fash­ion­ing more chances, and bet­ter ones, through faster, more fluid at­tacks that partly ex­plain the huge num­ber of penal­ties they won and they took more points (32) from the fi­nal 14 league games than any­one else in the top flight. Yet there has been a chronic over-de­pen­dence in at­tack on Mar­tial, Rash­ford, Green­wood and

Jan­uary’s big sign­ing, Bruno Fer­nan­des.

Does that ex­plain why Sol­sk­jaer has been flog­ging the four?

Pretty much. The Nor­we­gian’s trust does not ex­tend too far be­yond a dozen out­field play­ers.

When Sevilla went 2-1 ahead, Sol­sk­jaer waited an­other nine min­utes be­fore bring­ing on Juan Mata and Daniel James, not be­cause he failed to see the likes of Rash­ford and Green­wood were flag­ging, but be­cause he still felt those play­ers, even fa­tigued, rep­re­sented a bet­ter bet for a goal.

“It is not just about 11, 12 or 13 play­ers,” Sol­sk­jaer said. “You have to have 19, 20, 21 or 22 that you can rely upon be­cause if you play ev­ery three days for a year it is go­ing to be men­tally and phys­i­cally dif­fi­cult.”

That sounded very much like a mes­sage to United’s board ahead of a trun­cated, con­gested sea­son?

It sure did. With such a quick turn­around, money tight af­ter rev­enues were badly hit by the Covid-19 cri­sis and the man­ager’s needs ob­vi­ous, Sol­sk­jaer is des­per­ate for the club’s hi­er­ar­chy to move swiftly in the trans­fer mar­ket.

Re­mov­ing Alexis Sanchez from the wage bill was a start but if Sol­sk­jaer is to land three sign­ings, United will have to shift the dead­wood and free up space on the wage bill.

The pursuit of San­cho is prov­ing com­pli­cated and United need to sell cen­tre-halves be­fore they can buy an­other. Beef­ing up the mid­field may have to wait and then there is the co­nun­drum in the goal­keep­ing depart­ment. It is a crit­i­cal trans­fer win­dow.

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