Connect with us

English Premier League

Manchester United: Nuances, Dilemnas and Things to Watch This Season

Manchester United kick off their season this weekend and there is still so many questions around the squad, transfers and playing style.

For perhaps the nth time since 2013, Manchester United are heading into a new season while being riddled with uncertainty. This uncertainty has been forced upon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team because of more reasons than one. The effects of the pandemic will continue to rage on for the next few months and in many ways, that is unavoidable. Another reason for the uncertainty surrounding the club’s first-team goes back to the handling of the outgoings and incomings by Ed Woodward and the club’s board.

Extensive pre-match & live in-play cash out across more leagues and tournaments than anywhere else.
Be in total control with more cash out opportunities than anywhere else!
Exclusive to customers.

Multiple areas in the club’s first-team need fixing or at least, they need an injection of depth. While Jadon Sancho remains their priority and it is a deal that could yet happen, hopes of signing a left-back, a centre-back or a striker seem bleak. Whether the club recovers from missing out on Sergio Reguilon or not remains to be seen. The signature of Donny van de Beek could prove to be a great bit of business though, as the Dutchman adds depth and variety in the middle of the park.

More than anything, the former Ajax man adds something that United don’t have. He adds something fresh and new to the plate. To many, he is one of the best in Europe for his intelligent movement in the final third through which he slices open defences at will. His workrate helps him cover a lot of ground and positions on the pitch. For a team that could play over 55 games in the campaign, a player like Van de Beek could prove to be a real game changer especially considering how the lack of something fresh cost them big in the Europa League semi-finals last season.

Depth in other areas of the pitch though is yet to be brought in and that would frustrate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whose side did brilliantly to finish inside the top three last season. There were clear indications in the second half of the season that Ole didn’t trust his options on the bench and he got criticised for it, but a manager wouldn’t play the players that he doesn’t trust. To get rid of issues like that, Ed Woodward would seriously need to do more to back the manager properly – something that he has failed to do for multiple managers in the past.

That is one reason why this has become a habit for Man Utd fans after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. In a season when United would seriously need to challenge for trophies to indicate development under Ole, they would play many more games in a short space of time because of the pandemic. To do just that, Ed Woodward and co would need to wake up and hand Solskjaer with the depth that he trusts.

Apart from the obvious right-wing issue, the defensive combinations are going to be intriguing for the Red Devils. The need for a left-footed central defender was well documented. The idea isn’t just to do that for extra depth. The main reason is that having a left-footed central defender always helps create the right passing angles and lanes when United build from the back. There were instances in the second half of the campaign when United struggled against the high-press and there was too much possession involved between Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire. Nemanja Matic had to regularly drop in as a third centre-back to pick the passing lanes down the left side of the pitch – something that right-footed central defenders can’t do.

Matic coming deeper as a defender left United light in the build-up from central areas and on losing the ball, it became easy for teams to go past United players and move in-behind. That is also because Matic isn’t a natural left-footed central defender and he doesn’t have the youthful recovery pace as someone like Gabriel Magalhaes or Pau Torres would have. This caused an imbalance in the team regularly – even if the opposition didn’t press high up the pitch.

So a left-footed central defender could have a dramatic effect on United’s build-up, considering how Ole wants his team to build from the back. It will allow Matic to stay in midfield and would allow the Red Devils to constantly be flexible in their formations. A case can be made for Luke Shaw to play that role if United don’t sign a natural left centre-back. The Englishman did a very impressive job when he played in that role in a limited number of appearances.

But that leaves United with another dilemma. If Shaw switches to a left centre-back role in a back three or the 4-2-3-1, there would be a need for a quality left-back option like Reguilon himself. Brandon Williams is an option for that spot, but it has been reported that he could be shifted to the right-back role. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is another option and did a decent job last season, but it remains to be seen what his real position is as he’s a very versatile player.

Both those areas are interlinked in the context of how United operates in the market and what Ole wants. He would ideally want a player for both positions, but just one of the two would be huge and could act as a big missing piece in the jigsaw. Torres is likely to cost over €50 million and Villarreal have a release clause in him and he happens to be high up on the shortlist. It is understood that United would need to be a ‘crazy offer’ to lure Benoit Badiashile away from Monaco.

As for the left-back spot, Reguilon is off to Spurs and another target in Pervis Estupinan has joined Villarreal. So United need to act fast and fix at least one of those positions, as targets are being signed by other clubs as well.

The striker position is another area that Solskjaer would ideally want the team to strengthen in and while it is highly unlikely that happens this summer, one can see why the Norwegian wants another forward. He believes in the idea of getting deals done early and doesn’t like it if deals are left for late like the Sancho one has been. Odion Ighalo’s loan spell ends in January and Ole would ideally like another striker before that time comes.

It was clear after lockdown that Ole doesn’t trust Ighalo too much either. Despite a clogged fixture list during that period, the Nigerian played only 63 minutes in the Premier League and played just a single game against Sevilla in the Europa League semi-final; in a situation where United were in desperate need for a goal. That isn’t to say that he’s a bad player, but perhaps Ole wants an upgrade on him and that is why links with Moussa Dembele came up and he’s a player United remain interested in.

The priority remains elsewhere and the time other deals could take would essentially rule out the possibility of signing a striker.

Fans have been clamouring about the fact the club needs a long-term replacement for Matic this summer and some believe that Thiago Alcantara can be the man. Links with Uros Racic came up in recent days too. But signing Matic’s replacement or a like-for-like back-up for him doesn’t seem to be happening this summer and perhaps there’s a valid reason for that.

Ole tried Fred in the anchor-man role in the Europa League. There were two reasons for it. Firstly, he’s left-footed and allows for better ball-playing as mentioned before. Secondly, Ole wants him to mould into a Matic-like player this season. Him and Scott McTominay could be developed into the sort of players who can take the baton over from Matic.

Last season though, signs were a bit bleak that they could do the job well. Both aren’t exactly players that break lines with their passing and ball-carrying. McTominay has constantly shown that even if he can play in the defensive midfield, he needs Fred or Matic alongside him to really thrive. His physical approach to the game is perhaps best suited to a box-to-box role, where he uses his body very well and wins the ball back. McTominay’s tendency to charge forward into tackles leaves spaces behind that can expose United even more.

It isn’t to say that they can’t learn what Matic does, but it will be intriguing to see how they develop this season. It’ll shape how United do business next summer and whether they dip into the market for a defensive midfielder or not. AZ’s Teun Koopmeiners is someone who might interest United, considering his skill set.

As for Van de Beek, it is highly unlikely he plays in the Matic role regularly. At Ajax, the midfielder did play in the number six position a few times, but it comes down to the difference in systems. Even when he played as a number six, Van de Beek’s role was to create overloads in attack and help Ajax keep a highline. That can’t be the case at United due to the difference in systems.

Since United often transition to a 3-4-3 with a narrow front three when attacking in possession, it won’t be a surprise if Van de Beek picks up one of the positions beside Anthony Martial and perhaps does some job on the right wing. The role of a right-winger at United isn’t to hug the touchline. He has to constantly come inside and create. Van de Beek’s intelligent movement can be utilised in that position at some point too. The fact that he can add depth in multiple areas of the pitch makes him such an important player for Solskjaer in the 2020/21 season.

United won’t find it ideal in certain parts of the season, considering how they’d have to play a lot of games in a small space of time and this could lead to hindrances. Those hindrances can be avoided if the people in charge of transfers can back Solskjaer in adding more depth to the team. Teams have often identified United’s weak points and Ole’s targets can shore them up. If you don’t address your weak points and don’t add the quantity to the team though, progress can be derailed pretty easily at any point of the campaign.

More in English Premier League