Manchester United made undoubted progress in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge with a third-placed finish in the Premier League and three semi-final runs in cup competitions.
Solskjaer’s men now begin their 2020-’21 campaign at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday on the back of a 14-game unbeaten run in the English top-flight since the signing of Bruno Fernandes transformed their fortunes in January.
United’s midfield has been bolstered again by the arrival of the Netherlands’ Donny Van de Beek.
But with United still languishing well behind rivals Liverpool and Manchester City in the table, the Norwegian is now under the spotlight to mount a serious challenge for the Red Devils’ first Premier League title since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Good recent form
Despite finishing 33 points behind eventual champions Liverpool, United ended the previous season strongly and sneaked into the Champions League places on the final day. Since the restart, United were the form team in the Premier League. Since Fernandes’ arrival, the Red Devils picked up more points than any other Premier League side last season.
PL table since Fernandes joined United
Firepower in attack and competition in goal
Their attacking trident proved last season that it has the ability to terrorise the Premier League for years to come. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood combined for 63 goals last season.
At 24, Martial is the senior figure and should all three continue to improve and stay fit, United do have the firepower to not only hold onto their Champions League place but also challenge the teams above them.
United’s only major weakness during this impressive run seemed to be in goal where David de Gea made a lot of high-profile errors. But that situation seems to be addressed with the return of Dean Henderson on loan from Sheffield United.
His arrival should spur De Gea to improve or risk losing his place between the sticks at Old Trafford. Either way. it’s a scenario where United are certain to benefit.
Lack of squad depth
However, a weary end to their campaign little over a month ago in the Europa League semi-finals to Sevilla exposed the failings of a squad lacking in depth.
Solskjaer chose against making a substitution against the Spaniards until the 87th minute with little on the bench he felt he could turn to.
Fatigue could be a factor thanks to a tight turnaround from last season and it could hamper United’s start to the 2020-’21 campaign. Van de Beek’s arrival apart, that problem has not been solved.
Lack of ambition or poor recruitment?
United fans have been critical of their board for lack of signings this summer, questioning its ambitions. The fans are frustrated over a lack of a genuine title challenge since 2013 and after last season’s improvement, the summer transfer window was a period where United were expected to bridge the gap with the two teams that finished above them in the table last season, incidentally their closest rivals – Manchester City and Liverpool.
But despite the lack of transfer activity in this window, United have been heavy spenders in the transfer market in the last decade, especially after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and boast a squad of expensively assembled superstars.
In fact, United’s squad is second-most expensive among the Premier League top six making the reservations over the club’s ambitions a bit questionable.
Cost incurred by PL clubs to assemble squads
|Club||Tranfer cost to assemble current squad (in $)|
|Manchester City||1294 miliion|
|Manchester United||1001 million|
|Tottenham Hotspur||670 million|
Questions though have to be asked about the club’s recruitment. Too many big-money signings at United haven’t had the desired impact, leaving the club behind in the pecking order despite their heavy spending.
Even though, recent signings – Fernandes, Aaron Wan Bisakka – have worked for United, doubts persist over the club’s wisdom for paying a huge sum for a captain and centre-back Harry Maguire who has failed to win over the fans. United’s problems are partly down to poor recruitment than lack of ambition.
Rivals getting stronger
A large part of the disappointment for United fans has been a relatively quiet transfer window compared to their rivals.
Chelsea, who only finished behind on goal difference have spent over $250 million to improve their squad. FA Cup winners Arsenal have also strengthened with some smart buys. City have addressed their defensive issues with the signing of Nathan Ake and could yet bring in Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli if media reports are to be believed.
Liverpool have signed Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcantara while Tottenham have reportedly beaten United to left-back Sergio Reguilon, but more importantly, are close to bringing back Gareth Bale from Real Madrid.
New arrivals at top six PL clubs
|Arsenal||Chelsea||Liverpool||Man City||Man United||Tottenham|
|Gabriel||Timo Werner||Konstantinos Tsimikas||Nathan Ake||Donny Van de Beek||Matt Doherty|
|Willian||Hakim Ziyech||Thiago Alcantara||Ferran Torres||Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg|
|William Saliba||Ben Chilwell||Yan Couto||Joe Hart|
|Malang Sarr||Issa Kabore||Sergio Reguilon (Impending)|
|Thiago Silva||Gareth Bale (Impending)|
United have been quiet in the transfer window so far having the lowest number of new arrivals among the top six clubs, instilling a fear in the minds that the club may slide backwards instead of moving forward.
After a long summer of speculation, Jadon Sancho remains at Borussia Dortmund with United refusing to meet the Germans’ 120 million euros ($140 million, £110 million) asking price, while there have been no reinforcements in defence ahead of a gruelling campaign that will see the English giants return to the Champions League among four competitions over the next eight months.
Is Solskjaer the right man?
Questions also remain over whether United can ever fully bridge the gap to Liverpool and City with Solskjaer in charge compared with the world-class coaching of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
Solskjaer has made one big decision before the campaign gets started by keeping faith with Harry Maguire as club captain despite the England international being handed a 21-month suspended sentence by a Greek court, which he has appealed, for a brawl on holiday in Mykonos days after United’s Europa League exit.
Manchester United and Solskjaer begin the new season already under pressure from the fans even before a ball has been kicked. The fans are losing patience over the lack of silverware at Old Trafford at a time when their most bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City appear to be going from strength to strength.
Manchester United showed glimpses of its old self under the Norwegian manager last season, and the onus is on the players to keep it going. But will the lack of recent signings stall their progress under Solskjaer? Or will its expensively assembled squad finally start living up to expectations? It remains to be seen.
(With inputs from AFP)