Manchester United finished second in the league last season, but some would say they were lucky to do so. With only 74 points, twelve behind the leader Manchester City, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team did not seem like a team capable of winning the title.
A heartbreaking defeat in the Europa League final to Villarreal exemplified a monotonous season. And so, one of the most favored clubs in the world went and spent millions in the transfer market to sign the English jewel Jadon Sancho and the French guard Raphael Varane.
Manchester United have been in a never-ending race to acquire the winger from Borussia Dortmund, being linked to the player in every possible transfer window. And finally, to everyone’s relief, they signed the 21-year-old, that too for less than his projected value.
Raphael Varane’s young and prosperous career in Madrid, in which he won three La Liga titles, four Champions League titles, three Super Cups and four Club World Cups, makes him one of the most decorated players in the current Manchester United squad. If Sancho is world-class potential, Varane is proven solidarity. Manchester United, at least with these two signings, has sent a statement to the rest of the league’s teams.
And so with quality on the team with other potential income, is it really time for the Red Devils to unleash their true potential? But, to get a clearer idea of whether a storm is coming, we need to look at how they fared compared to the other three in the top 4 last season.
AN IMMEDIATE SECOND?
There were never really any expectations for Manchester United. Even when Liverpool were going through an injury crisis and Frank Lampard’s Chelsea fell apart, Solskjaer’s United were not inclined to fight for the title. Manchester City had no competition whatsoever, not even from their legendary rivals 5 miles away.
The boss admits that he has to make decisions about three of our young attackers 🤔#MUFC
– Manchester United (@ManUtd) July 30, 2021
The best part of Manchester United was their offensive cunning last season. A fast team, capable of overcoming defenses, strong on the wing and excellent in their shots. 73 goals are a fair representation of his efforts. But, his defensive side of the game was questionable.
They conceded 44 goals, more than any of the top four. Two more than Liverpool, which had at least 18 different center-back pairs. But, the other stats, even the ones they’re apparently good at, look below average compared to the other three.
United are fourth in expected goals at just 1.58 per ninety compared to City’s 1.93. His attempted shots ranked seventh in the league. Even the number of passes they completed has an astronomical drop from those of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
While the other three averaged more than sixty percent possession per game, Manchester United fell to just 55, even less than Arsenal. Its progressive charging distance also had a stark contrast compared to all three teams.
📊 Bruno Fernandes has scored and assisted in a league game for the seventh time this season; more than any player in the top five European leagues in 2020-21. #mufc [@OptaJoe] pic.twitter.com/PrxjDZmloc
– DistritoUtd (@DistrictUtd) February 21, 2021
Lack of inspiration and lack of a clear identity has been one of United’s main problems. They do not have a heavy attack nor are they inclined defensively. They also don’t play a balanced version. Bits and pieces of everything, along with poor races for opposition teams, have kept them alive last season. And so, Solskjaer and company. They will have to play “their” style of soccer if they hope to finally win a title.
THE EFFECTS OF THE TRANSFER
Until now, the manager has stuck to a 4-2-3-1 system, a fluid attack system that revolved around the presence of a capable Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese midfielder was his best player last season, scoring 18 goals and assisting 12 times. However, of the 18 goals, half came from the penalty spot (source: fbref.com).
But his overall contribution to United’s attacking game has been commendable. Providing the most key passes of all in the league, Fernandes shone at a below-average United.
Marcus Rashford, Edison Cavani, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James made a formidable attack. Cavani’s aging career has reduced his playing time and the other youngsters have not yet reached the expected level. The arrival of Jadon Sancho will fuel their attack, providing not only versatility but also consistency, the main ingredient missing from most of United’s leaders.
Scoring 8 goals and providing 11 assists in the Bundesliga, Sancho has been fascinating in the Borussia Dortmund jersey last season. A formidable dribbler whose control of the ball is simply a pleasure to watch. Beating the players at will, Sancho is among the best ball carriers in the game, averaging nearly four dribbles every ninety minutes.
Sancho is exactly what Old Trafford needs, a player whose presence can haunt defenders and provide game-changing moments. If he can click with the other forward players, United’s attacking threat will get a massive boost.
At the other extreme, the world’s most expensive defender, Harry Maguire, and his defensive partner seemed more average than world-class. Lacking pace and defensive solidarity, United were prone to making too many mistakes and were not convincing when it came to defending set pieces.
The arrival of Varane, a player whose very stature demands attention, will be an incredible relief for the defense. It is inserted directly into the equipment. An excellent ballgame defender whose defensive awareness and cunning have been revered at the Bernabéu for years.
With enough quality of equipment and personnel, this time, United will need to establish its authority. Solskjaer can no longer stay in the chair without taking home a trophy. This season will be crucial for his future and that of the club. The variety of managers who have tried to take Sir Alex Ferguson’s place has failed, and also miserably.
Solskjaer has been given time and must be repaid with a dividend. The best way to do this would be not to try to fill the big man’s shoe. It’s time for United to get over that school of thought. Solskjaer needs to establish his identity and his way of playing football.
– Manchester United (@ManUtd) July 31, 2021
The 4-2-3-1 is just a dummy safe that the manager uses to protect his weary defense. Relying heavily on a creative playmaker to make things happen early on. The team drew eleven games last season, only Fulham and Brighton having done more. When has this club started to settle for just under three points?
The two signings also justify a system change, a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-2-1 can be implemented. A system in which players have more freedom of attack.
The presence of a world cup winner as a central defender should give players more leeway to keep going. Sancho will bring more intention, while now an uncertain midfield can be realigned. It’s time for the team to step up, otherwise it could be last season that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is driving the wheel in Manchester.