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Manchester United players after their recent Premier League match against Leicester City in Leicester, Britain (Reuters Image)

Manchester United finishing third in the Premier League and securing Champions League football is definitely progress, there’s no doubt about that. Yes, they didn’t improve in their last season’s points tally when they finished sixth. Also, with 66 points, they were closer to Bournemouth and Watford—a 32-point gap—than champions Liverpool, separated by 33 points (both Bournemouth and Watford were relegated). But the positives outweigh the shortcomings.

United were the form team towards the back-end of the league and went on an unbeaten run of 14 matches. In January, after 24 games, United had been trailing third-placed Leicester City by 14 points. They eventually ended up four points ahead of Leicester. Leicester’s implosion, after the league restarted following a three-month Covid-induced layoff, presented United with an opportunity to sneak through. They rose to the challenge.

Bruno Fernandes, a January acquisition, was the catalyst in United’s upswing. But without the dazzling front three—Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood—the resurgence wouldn’t have happened. Martial has been a revelation, finishing with 17 Premier League goals from 32 appearances. Rashford brushed aside a potentially career-threatening back injury and also scored 17 goals from 31 appearances. The excellent Greenwood proved to be the most exciting young English talent in a long time. The 18-year-old bagged 10 goals from 31 appearances, including 19 outings as a substitute.

Also, the much criticised United defence conceded 36 goals in 38 matches, as the club finished only behind Liverpool and Manchester City in terms of the number of goals scored against them. Without David De Gea’s mistakes in goal, United’s ‘goals against’ count might have been even fewer.

As per Premier League stats, right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka won 129 tackles and made 179 recoveries. Captain and centre-half Harry Maguire made 237 recoveries and won 240 duels. Maguire’s partner at the heart of defence, Victor Lindelof, made 215 recoveries. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Williams returned with a tackle success rate of 71%. Because of United’s size and popularity as a club, even minor errors at times are blown out of proportion. But overall, from a football point of view, the back-four or five have gelled well.

Spare a thought for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The so-called ‘PE teacher’, according to his critics on social media, achieved a league double against Manchester City and Chelsea this term. He overhauled the whole recruitment process, picked them young, made successful/impact acquisitions and, most importantly, reset the team culture that had been broken over the past few seasons.

Over the past six seasons, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, United’s managerial appointments had been poor under the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. David Moyes, in fact, was handpicked by Sir Alex, but the former Everton manager apparently had been done in by the enormity of the club. Louis van Gaal promoted youth, including Rashford, won the FA Cup and secured a fourth-place finish once, but the veteran manager was past his prime when he came to Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho brought in the stars, won two trophies—League Cup and Europa League—in his first season, but the team atmosphere reportedly became toxic during his third season in charge. He fell out with Paul Pogba. His acquisition of Alexis Sanchez, which was unnecessary, stalled Martial’s progress. Rashford was regressing. Mourinho had to go.

Solskjaer initiated a clearout at the start of the 2019-20 season, offloading Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian. He brought in young players like Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James—players who would be playing for the badge. He found a leader in Maguire and then, in January, the manager made a world-class addition by roping in Fernandes. Solskjaer brought back attacking football, banishing the on-pitch tedium under van Gaal and Mourinho.

This season was actually about rebooting the team culture. Securing the Champions League spot was the cherry on the cake. Solskjaer needs time to reach the next level and to be on a par with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. But his first full season as United manager was a success. He is taking the team in the right direction. Credit to the United board as well for trusting Solskjaer’s project and backing him when the going got tough.

“We were allowed to keep making decisions without thinking about what could have been. They knew our ambition, what we want here, the environment we want here, which will then be the foundation for moving up the table,” Solskjaer told Sky Sports.

Back in the Champions League, United will face tougher challenges next season. Solskjaer will have to start with De Gea. The Spaniard is on a sharp decline over the past 18-odd months. The manager so far has publicly stood by his ‘keeper, but Dean Henderson is now eager to come back to his parent club after two successful seasons on loan with Sheffield United. And the 23-year-old makes a strong claim to be the first choice. Solskjaer has a big call to make. United probably need a left-sided centre-half whose pace can complement Maguire’s composure. They need another world-class addition upfront notwithstanding that the Rashford-Martial-Greenwood troika are on fire. As Solskjaer has said: “You need competition for places at Manchester United.” A club legend himself, he knows United’s DNA. It would be a surprise if United fail to land Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund.

In a Covid-hit market, more than three signings in the summer are unlikely. It is also unlikely that United will mount a Premier League title challenge next season. Liverpool and City are still far ahead. Liverpool will strengthen further to defend their title. City, enamoured by their ‘victory’ at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, are expected to go on a spending spree. For United, the upcoming season should be about building on their performance this term. Solskjaer probably needs two more transfer windows to knock Liverpool off their perch.