Sign­ings away from the Euro elite

Manchester Evening News - - SPORT - By TY­RONE MAR­SHALL

IT sums up United’s mix of mis­for­tune and mis­ad­ven­ture that they sud­denly find them­selves deal­ing with an in­jury cri­sis in the one area of the squad that looked to be well stocked in the sum­mer.

The Reds had so many cen­tral de­fend­ers avail­able in Au­gust that a home­grown player with more than 300 ap­pear­ances for the club was al­lowed to join a Serie A gi­ant on loan.

While Roma fans con­tinue to go Chris Smalling crazy, United sup­port­ers were go­ing crazy with Phil Jones on Tues­day night.

Smalling, con­fi­dence re­built in the most de­fen­sively sound league in Europe, would be wel­comed back to Manch­ester with open arms if he could re­turn now, but he’s be­ing hailed as some kind of de­fen­sive God with the Gial­lorossi.

In­stead, the ab­sence of Harry Maguire will mean Jones con­tin­ues his own at­tempted res­ur­rec­tion along­side Vic­tor Lin­de­lof, while Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer waits on Axel Tuanzebe, Eric Bailly and Mar­cos Rojo to re­turn to fit­ness with Maguire. When ev­ery­one is fit Jones and Rojo are surely both on their way out this sum­mer, while a quin­tet of Maguire, Lin­de­lof, Tuanzebe, Bailly and Smalling would be re­spectable for now. The same can’t be said of al­most ev­ery other po­si­tion in Sol­sk­jaer’s squad.

The min­i­mum aim for United right now must be a re­turn to reg­u­lar Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball and com­fort­able top four fin­ishes, but this squad is ill-equipped to achieve that.

When ev­ery­one is avail­able, Sol­sk­jaer may be able to field an XI that would chal­lenge for the top four, but then this is the weak­est race for the Cham­pi­ons League in many a sea­son, and no man­ager en­joys the lux­ury of be­ing able to pick his best team ev­ery week for very long.

United are fifth af­ter 21 games and some­how look­ing like Chelsea’s clos­est chal­lengers for fourth, yet their re­turn of 31 points from those games has never be­fore seen a team in such an el­e­vated po­si­tion at this stage.

In the 24 pre­vi­ous sea­sons when the Premier League sea­son has been 38 games long, a re­turn of 31 points af­ter 21 games has only once seen a team in sixth. In the 23 other sea­sons it would have seen that team in sev­enth (six times), eighth (nine times), ninth (six times) and 10th (twice).

United have been handed an un­ex­pected op­por­tu­nity this sea­son but at the mo­ment they don’t look like grasp­ing it.

If the league re­turns to mean next sea­son then a sim­i­lar re­turn will be nowhere near good enough for a top­four chal­lenge. So im­prov­ing this squad is the only way United can hope to mount a more con­vinc­ing as­sault on the top four next sea­son, but it has to be a busy and pro­duc­tive cou­ple of trans­fer win­dows. Re­al­is­ti­cally, United are six sign­ings away from hav­ing a squad that should ex­pect to fin­ish fourth next sea­son, and it’s eas­ier to list the po­si­tions that don’t need strength­en­ing than do.

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