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
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.