A hard-fought third-place finish in the league followed by a semi-final exit from the Europa League left a bittersweet feeling for Manchester United. It was not just the fact that it was their third defeat in the semi-finals this season but also the fact that they finished another season without any silverware. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men would certainly look back at this with a lingering sense of regret.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for United as there are clear positives to take away. The progress at Old Trafford last season could be sensed in terms of a third-place finish, emergence of academy players, distinct style of play, and restoration of attacking football.
However, Solskjaer’s reluctance to turn to his bench in the final few weeks of the season highlighted the issue of lack of depth within the squad. The obvious solution to this, of course, is to recruit players.
There’s no denying that United are still a few steps away from belonging to the same bracket of Liverpool and Manchester City. These two clubs have been quite shrewd and ruthless in the transfer market in the past few years. Solskjaer, too, needs to be backed in the transfer market. But it has been almost four weeks, and despite identifying their top targets long ago, there have been no incomings.
Jadon Sancho remains the primary target but with each passing day, the England international’s arrival seems unlikely. That’s why United are also considering other options and not only that but they are looking for players in other positions as well. While ruthless recruitment is one thing – and it is needed for sure – but that alone won’t solve United’s shortcomings.
But that alone won’t solve United’s shortcomings. So, what else needs to be fixed?
Revamp the solid yet often faulty backline
Defensively, United were amongst the best not just in England but also amongst all of Europe this past season. The Red Devils conceded just 36 goals in the league – which was the league’s third-best defensive record and also just three off from the best defensive record of Liverpool. And within the clubs competing in the top five European leagues, United’s defence stands 10th. For context, it was better than Serie A Champions Juventus and La Liga runners-up Barcelona.
However, stats are just another aspect of the game and they don’t tell the whole story. No doubt, United have improved defensively and that’s what you can expect when the club has spent over £120m on Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Maguire played almost every minute of the campaign at the heart of the United defence and Wan-Bissaka was also ever-present at the right-back.
Both the players proved to be obvious upgrades for United in their respective positions but they have struggled quite a few times this past season. Maguire’s other centre back partner Victor Lindelof often has often come under a lot of scrutiny – most recently against Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals – for his positioning and lack of awareness. Maguire himself hasn’t been prone to criticism. He has been left flat-footed by pacey players and his decision making’s been questionable at times.
At left-back, United doesn’t have any other established option. Academy graduate Brandon Williams did excellent in Shaw’s absence. Williams’ recent struggles can be overlooked for two reasons – firstly, he’s only nineteen and secondly, playing a right-footed wingback on the left side in this team’s current dynamics just does not work. Williams is far from a finished article but he’s just not ready to be a starter yet. Shaw’s injury record indicates that United should have another quality alternative. And Eric Bailly’s perennial injury problem means he doesn’t even get to see the field much. That’s why United are considering a centre-back and a left-back in the market.
Signings will definitely provide more options to Solskjaer but a lot of improvement needs to come from within only.
Be more clinical
United’s last two games highlighted that despite their attacking flair they can struggle to convert their chances. One particular stat has been circulated widely – Solskjaer’s men had 46 shots against Copenhagen and Sevilla of which 21 were on target and they scored just two goals. Nevermind, those two came from the penalty spot.
The trident of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood with Bruno Fernandes as a catalyst has been nothing short of exuberant. They all have had a brilliant season. But – as seen in the final few weeks of the season – Solskjaer is over-dependent on his front four. And when they can’t provide a goal, the Norwegian hardly has anyone else to turn to.
Despite having a wonderful goal-scoring season, some suggested that Martial is not a natural no.9 and United certainly needs a ‘poacher’ or a ‘fox in the box’. For now, however, that’s not a priority. United are still committed to bringing Sancho, and if he comes then Greenwood can move to the central area – his natural position.
For all their scoring plaudits United’s forwards have, still, much to learn on the training ground.