This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
For all of the noise around Manchester United’s owners, the club’s identity, Old Trafford’s facilities and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s midfield, there’s a short answer to this question. What’s holding United back? Strength in depth.
Solskjaer trusts 14 players, give or take, and plays them as much as possible. Supporters worried when Bruno Fernandes started a League Cup game at Everton in a packed December, yet the Norwegian selected him because he needed – and still needs – a trophy. He has improved the team, while lowering its age profile, and his increasingly consistent side begin the new Premier League season without an away defeat since January 2020, but this coming December marks Solskjaer’s three years in the job. Soon he must launch a genuine title challenge.
Progress has been gradual, with four semi-final defeats preceding the Europa League disappointment in Gdansk, but it’s progress nonetheless. Even as United face the upheaval of replacing Ed Woodward, who resigned following the club’s disastrous dalliance with the European Super League, they’re on a more even keel now than during the post-Ferguson lurches from manager to manager, philosophy to philosophy.
Solskjaer is popular, and in individual games he’s bested Messrs Guardiola, Klopp, Tuchel, Ancelotti, Mourinho and more. But a few doubts remain. Ole’s substitutions were scrutinised when he didn’t take off Fred before his inevitable second booking against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League group stage calamity. And that brings us back around to the aforementioned short answer – Solskjaer feared PSG would expose Nemanja Matic’s lack of pace.
The most revealing Red Devils matches last season were the three against neighbours Manchester City. In the goalless Old Trafford derby, United felt they’d taken the game to City more than any other team had done. In United’s League Cup semi-final defeat, Ruben Dias – Victor Lindelof’s replacement at Benfica – was City’s best player. In the league meeting two months later, the champions-elect had two-thirds of the possession and as many shots as their visitors, yet United won with a high-pressing game to claim a third successive Etihad victory in all competitions.
United aren’t far off. They need more quality, and Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane certainly tick those boxes in both attack and defence. It’s tough at the top, but as one of the world’s biggest clubs, they must scale the heights after too long spent in the foothills.
The five-point plan
1 Race out the blocks
United started each of the past three campaigns poorly. The first cost Jose Mourinho his job; the second brought the January signing of Fernandes to save United’s season; and an early slump in 2020/21 was due to there being almost no pre-season. Start well, make the fans believe, and watch the players’ confidence soar. Don’t start well and criticism of the Glazer family will intensify, even if protests thus far haven’t been about results on the pitch.
2 Unleash El Matador
Edinson Cavani needs to be as effective over a campaign as he was in the final quarter of 2020/21. The Uruguayan, now 34, may not be expected to play more than 60 per cent of available minutes, but that’s still plenty in a season that could bring 55 to 60 games. Last term, Cavani signed late, quarantined, recovered from COVID-19, was suspended and had three different injuries before that end-of-term flourish. Having changed his mind about going home, he can look forward to a fuller Old Trafford in 2021/22.
WHAT A GOAL! 🏹Edinson Cavani welcomes the #MUFC fans back to Old Trafford with a long-range stunner! 🎯📺 Watch on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #MUNFUL here: https://t.co/8xOhrNlz6Q📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/cbMLXB5qP4May 18, 2021
3 Improve home form
Supporters’ absence affected results (not to mention the club’s spiralling debt), but it did for every team, and nine wins from 19 games isn’t enough for title hopefuls. The 1,500 rail seats installed for a safe-standing trial and an expanded area of vocal fans in the Stretford End should help – United need their impetus to overcome teams who sit deep at Old Trafford. Now, if Paul Pogba – still wanted by PSG, remember – could also bring his France form...
4 Stop relying on the comeback
Perhaps United’s biggest strength last season is also their biggest weakness. The Red Devils went behind on 17 different occasions last term but still picked up 31 points from those matches, winning 10. No team in Europe’s top five leagues boasted a better come-from-behind record, but starting games on the front foot must become a priority to avoid more stress this time around.
5 Reach the Champions League knockouts
It was an interesting ride, but no more Europa League.
FFT verdict: 4th
An already elite forward line may now boast Sancho, and the defence is strengthened by Varane, but strength in depth in midfield remains a worry.
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Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.