Signings away from the Euro elite
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.