Premier League 2020/21 preview: Manchester United
A third-place Premier League finish was a solid return from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge. But after suffering three semi-final defeats in 2020 can the Norwegian bring silverware back to Old Trafford?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer led Manchester United to third place in the Premier League in his first full season in charge. But after suffering three semi-final defeats in 2020 can the Norwegian bring silverware back to Old Trafford?
First five games: Brighton and Hove Albion (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), Newcastle United (A), Chelsea (H), Arsenal (H)
Final five games: Liverpool (H), Aston Villa (A), Leicester City (H), Fulham (H), Wolverhampton Wanderers (A)
Manchester United's 19/20 season
The 2019/20 campaign was a tale of two halves for Manchester United that ended in relative success for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. A poor start to the season saw United down in 14th place in late October with pressure mounting on the manager after spending big on defensive reinforcements the previous summer. Champions League football was a must for United but they were still down in 7th at the end of January.
The mid-season arrival of Bruno Fernandes was the catalyst for a sharp upturn in both results and performances as United went unbeaten in their final 14 league games, a run that started in the playmaker’s first appearance for the club. He contributed 12 goals and eight assists in just 22 games in all competitions and ended the season with a better goals-per-game scoring record than Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But more crucial than those numbers was the effect he had on the team’s play. His intelligence and precise passing helped to unlock the deep defences that had previously thwarted United and he brought the best out of their pacey forwards.
However it would be wrong to credit the Portuguese midfielder as the sole contributor. United’s defence also improved markedly in the second half of the season as Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka settled into the side. Those final 14 matches saw United concede exactly 0.5 goals per league game, less than half of their average from the first 24 fixtures. Although Fernandes’ ability to dictate a game helped to take the pressure off the defenders, United’s resurgent backline also deserves some credit.
United boasted the best record in the Premier League over those final 14 games and they finished the season in a very respectable 3rd position. However their total of 66 points was exactly the same as they managed in 2018/19 and they only pipped Leicester City to a Champions League spot on the final day. A decent campaign, particularly given their poor start, but can they maintain their late-season form for a whole year?
In the seven years since United lifted their last Premier League title under Sir Alex Ferguson, only one player has remained a fixture of the side throughout. David De Gea established himself as one of the best goalkeepers on the planet but for the first time his spot looks to be under serious threat. A dip in performance in recent seasons has coincided with the emergence of Dean Henderson as a top goalkeeper. The 23-year-old was persuaded to sign a new six-year deal with the club to fend off interest from rivals but he will be expecting some game time in return.
In midfield, United are streets ahead of where they were 12 months ago. Last year Paul Pogba’s agent was speaking publically about his client’s wish to leave and Nemanja Matic and Fred were seen as surplus to requirements by many. But 2019/20 brought fresh impetus for the trio and they performed well when in the team, with 32-year-old Matic rewarded with a three-year contract extension. Fernandes brought extra creativity and the recent signing of Donny van de Beek will provide the quality back-up that United have missed in recent seasons. That squad depth will be invaluable if they are to go far in the cup competitions again.
But most importantly, for the first time since Sir Alex’s retirement United appear to have a fairly settled team with a cohesive style. Hungry young players allowed to express themselves in an effective, modern system. If Solskjaer can maintain the momentum from last season it should give the team’s many young stars the opportunity to build on their promising starts to senior football, from Brandon Williams to Mason Greenwood. After years of constant upheaval, a bit of stability may suit United well.
What should we expect this season?
Solskjaer has been eager to impress a message of gradual improvement during his 21 months in the Old Trafford hot seat but that may be slightly tougher this season. Finishing third was a great achievement after their poor start but the gap to the top two is currently more of a chasm. Manchester City will almost certainly be a tougher prospect in 2020/21 and Liverpool accrued 50% points more than United last season. Chelsea have been the most active Premier League side in the transfer market this summer and after finishing behind United on goal different they will be eager to overhaul the Red Devils this time.
Champions League football will remain an imperative but focus should now shift to picking up some silverware for the first time under Solskjaer. United have now had three consecutive trophy-less seasons and have not gone four without silverware since the 1980s. Solskjaer admitted at the end of last season that lifting a trophy should be their new priority: "The team has developed all through the season, we're delighted with finishing third, but the next step is winning a trophy.”
United reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, Carabao Cup and the Europa League last season but were defeated in all of them. That record probably sums up where their young side is at the moment; good enough to overpower the lesser teams but likely to come up short when they face top-level opposition. The emergence of a recognisable style was probably Solskjaer’s greatest success from the last campaign but they will need to improve on their ability to grind out results if they are to take the next step and pick up some silverware.
What does Solskjaer think?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: “We have a young team - some spells showed that this group of players will have to learn and get some consistency in their play.
"Since February we've been fantastic… We've come quite a distance. Exciting to work with the boys but you could see at the end - tired legs and tired minds. We definitely need to improve to move up the table and take steps in the cups. I've never had three semi-finals in one season."
What do the fans think?
Harry Robinson, host of United Through Time podcast and contributor for United We Stand fanzine:
“After a defeat to Burnley at home, Solskjaer's future looked bleak, or non-existent for some. Bruno Fernandes' arrival turned things around and we managed a third-place finish. That was the aim at the start of the season, although it remains embarrassing to admit that for most United fans who are used to title ambitions.
“Success next season means another third-place finish and at least one trophy. No season is successful without a trophy and United should have won at least one last season but failed at the semi-final stage on three occasions. That can't happen again. I think Solskjaer will steer United to fourth and a trophy which would be acceptable as long as the signs of a team building are there.”
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