Manchester United: End of term report and areas to improve
Room to improve.
To judge where Manchester United currently stand in terms of progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a matter of expectation and perspective. On the one hand, three cup semi-finals and a third-place finish in the Premier League points to a side at least verging on competing for major honours on all fronts. On the other, it could be described as being neither bride nor bridesmaid in every competition. They are still lightyears behind Manchester City and Liverpool, whilst two of this season's nearly achievements came in England and Europe's second cups.
How United compete on both domestic and Champions League fronts next season will depend largely on how they strengthen during the truncated transfer window. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that they're not the fastest to react at the best of times, and certainly don't show the decisiveness and ambition of some of their rivals. When real-life difficulties such as the impact of COVID-19 on finances and timing are added to United's habit of creating difficulty where there is none, it doesn't bode well for those hoping for robust action in coming weeks.
Strength in depth
But accepting those realities, where should Solskjaer be looking to improve? There is clearly an issue with strength in depth when it comes to first team options. There are plenty of willing bodies in Manchester United's squad; whether they are able is another matter. For weeks now, the starting XI have remained largely untouched, barring forced changes due to injury. That points to a trust the manager has in his preferred picks that he doesn't extent to those on the bench. The very obvious result of that has been a desperately knackered group of starters.
That needs to change, and urgently so. The new season starts in a matter of days and will be congested like never before. If United don't add numbers of real quality in coming weeks, they will either collectively pass out before the festive period or experience significant drops in quality as inferior stand-ins are asked to play their part. Of course every successful manager needs a relatively settled and consistent starting XI for the most part, but it is also imperative to have a number of 'headaches'. Each game should be a dilemma as to who to keep out due to their outstanding qualities.
With all due respect to the likes of Jesse Lingard, Daniel James, Odion Ighalo, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Juan Mata, Phil Jones, Andreas Pereira and Diogo Dalot, it is unlikely that any of them would legitimately trouble their starting counterparts in a big game on pure merit. They all have their significant qualities of course, but it is a group that is hampered by ageing legs, lost potential, rotten luck with injuries, or just not being quite as good as their more stellar colleagues. There is so shame in that, and every squad has and needs such players, but perhaps not quite as many.
David de Gea continues to be a difficult conundrum to solve. He is reportedly the best paid player in the Premier League, and yet flits between saviour and liability on a regular basis. Such extreme swings of ridiculous and sublime are no good in his position, where a Steady Eddie is preferable to someone who is both sublimely gifted and increasingly erratic. Dean Henderson's return from his loan spell at Sheffield United may shake things up a little, but Solskjaer would do well to act decisively either way. The last thing he needs is another Tim Howard/Roy Carroll situation.
In terms of the back line, there is clear room for improvement - both defensively and going forward. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is exemplary as a one-on-one defender, with both the speed and telescopic limbs to recover most situations. The ridicule of his offensive game is perhaps a little overstated, but he is hardly a swashbuckling wingback in the modern template. That's fine to an extent - as long as both wings aren't similarly risk-averse. Luke Shaw is a good option at left-back, but not an exceptional one in any facet of the game. There is never a sense of excitement or unpredictability when he has the ball in the opposition half.
Brandon Williams has done exceptionally well as his understudy. He has shown a temperament and tenacity that more than justifies his new contract at the club. But again, he is pretty conservative in his play - more of a defensive fullback than an attacking one. Of course he has plenty of time to add extra facets to his game, but perhaps United could do with a more attacking, game-changing option - whether it be on the left or the right - to add an extra dimension to their play in certain situations. Whether that's in the form of an external recruit or an exciting youngster like Ethan Laird, United require added attacking impetus from these areas.
In terms of central defence, all reports suggest that Solskjaer is looking at a left-sided option. This is presumably in order to move Harry Maguire to the right, where he can better utilise his preferred right foot and receive welcome cover from Wan-Bissaka. Various names have been suggested to partner Maguire, including Monaco's Benoit Badiashile and Villarreal's Pau Torres, and again it's interesting that forward passing is an important criteria. United have high hopes for academy graduate Teden Mengi, but he will require a gradual introduction to the first team fold. All this may seem a little harsh on Victor Lindelof, but he is perfectly okay when being merely okay isn't really good enough.
Finding the right midfield dynamic
In midfield, United have a relative embarrassment of riches without yet the perfect combination. Bruno Fernandes has been an inspired signing by any metric. He provides creativity, goals, urgency and leadership to the side, whilst also managing to improve all those around him. Paul Pogba has certainly benefitted from the arrival of the sublime Portuguese, who both adds a kindred spirit and takes away some of the spotlight. Beyond these two, there is a number of genuine first-team options who between them have all the attributes required of a third midfielder to complete a world-class trio - but unfortunately you can't pick-and-mix their qualities into Frankenstein's midfielder.
Nemanja Matic would be ideal if he was about five years younger, but he is not. That's fine over a finite number of games, but at 32 he is past sustaining his optimum level for a whole season. Scott McTominay and Fred are both more than worthy of first-team berths and will each get plenty of games to show their worth, but perhaps they are not best suited to sitting behind the offensive-minded Fernandes and Pogba. The truth is that United could really do with a modern version of Michael Carrick as a player to sit deep, sniff out trouble and act as the team's metronome in possession. Perhaps Solskjaer could invest in a DeLorean to steal Carrick from the past or the academy prospect James Garner from the future.
Further forward, United have obviously been strongly linked to both Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish, and budget allowing, a strong case could be made for why both of these wonderful talents should be added to the Old Trafford fray. Sancho would be a transformative signing in the same way Fernandes has been, and would serve to elevate the attack to a different level. For someone so young, he has an unerring ability to constantly pick the right option at the right time and to execute it perfectly. Precocious young talents are not meant to be this polished and fully-formed. In short, he is a freak and cheap at £110m.
Jack Grealish would add versatility and invention, and allow Solskjaer to play around with numerous different attacking shapes and options. Not only would he allow each of Fernandes and Pogba the occasional rest from their creative duties, but he could also play with them, drifting in from the left as well as starting as a number 10. He would also be another determined leader on the pitch; the type who would not go missing in difficult situations and always demand the ball at times of highest risk. United need to be less predictable and more able to break down well-organised sides with intelligence and guile. You do that by taking defenders out of the game, either through clever passing or beating your man. Grealish - and Sancho - do both very well.
Up front, United are blessed with three wonderfully gifted attacking talents. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood are individually and collectively exceptional. Rashford is increasingly a playmaker as well as finisher; Martial looks to have become the outstanding finished article that many had hoped he would be; and Greenwood has the potential to become a genuinely world-class talent. But the problem with all three being undroppable is there's nothing left in reserve. As good as they are, they need competition and they each need a rest. Greenwood in particular requires careful treatment. It would be detriment to everyone to burn him out.
But the answer needn't be another Romelu Lukaku to permanently take anyone's place. Instead, a couple of stellar acquisitions - such as Sancho and Grealish - would allow a variety of exciting combinations of the front five, including the attacking midfielders. It would suddenly make United far more unpredictable to play against and far less easy to thwart. But again, we go back to the original point: to judge where United currently stand in terms of progress is a matter of expectation and perspective. We'll see in coming weeks just how ambitious the club is and where its expectations lie.