This is the fourth in a series assessing Premier League teams and their transfer priorities for the summer. Read more on Arsenal and its progression under Mikel Arteta, how Tottenham must rebuild on a budget under Jose Mourinho and why Chelsea has the look of a team going all in.
Manchester United finished the season third in the Premier League table. It qualified for next season's Champions league and is the odds-on favorite to win this season's Europa League. These are not achievements that would have excited United fans once upon a time, but given how things had been going, they have been welcomed as signs that everything is moving in the right direction at Old Trafford.
And there are certainly positive signs. Since arriving at the end of January, Bruno Fernandes has made sense of a squad that had previously appeared utterly incoherent. Paul Pogba, recovered from injury, works well with Fernandes and, thanks to the economic uncertainty provoked by the coronavirus crisis, now looks likely to stay at the club. Mason Greenwood has emerged as the most exciting young talent at the club since Ryan Giggs. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both found spells of form toward the end of the campaign.
But there are also concerns. United didn’t actually play well in any of its last five matches, even if the only defeat was the FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had gambled on essentially picking the same players game after game–and given the performance in that FA Cup semifinal when he did make changes, perhaps with good reason–but the result was that his side was exhausted by the final couple of weeks of the league campaign. Clearly, he needs to have a deeper squad that he trusts if United is to thrive next season.
And then there’s the oddly streaky nature of Solskjaer’s career at Old Trafford, which effectively divides into three periods. There was the first phase that lasted from 22 Dec. 22, 2018, to March 9, 2019, in which United won 12 and drew two of 14 games when simply his not being Jose Mourinho seemed like enough for Solskjaer to elevate the mood.
Solskjaer was given the job on a full-time basis on March 28, but by then the stutter had already begun. The first defeat had come at Arsenal on March 10. That marks the beginning of his second phase, which ran until January 31 of this year. Of 34 league games, United won 11, drew nine and lost 14. Points per game fell from 2.71 in his first phase to 1.24 in his second.
And then Fernandes arrived. From Feb. 1, 2020, when Fernandes made his debut in a 0-0 draw against Wolves, to the end of the season, United went unbeaten, winning nine and drawing five. Points per game were back up at 2.29. Which is the real Solskjaer? Might the Fernandes alchemy wear off? Or if there is an injury to the first-choice XI that has produced such a positive run of form, can Solskjaer react? He has proved himself a manager who can play on the counterattack, but can he do more than that?
What does not seem to be an issue at the moment is money. United has ambitious plans and seems to have decided Solskjaer is central to them. With the nucleus of a squad in place, a handful of additions could make United a serious threat next season.
United’s forward line is arguably the strongest area of the squad, but that's not stopping the club from targeting Jadon Sancho, the 20-year-old former Manchester City youth product who had 17 goals and 16 assists this past season for Borussia Dortmund. The Bundesliga club's initial reluctance to sell this summer seems to have been lessened by the realization that prices may drop over the next year, and if anybody is still making marquee signings it may as well take advantage.
Sancho’s quality is clear, and his pace and trickery fit the style of football Solskjaer favors. Bournemouth's Joshua King is a possibility to bolster options in the center if Odion Ighalo’s loan deal–which now runs to January 31–is not made permanent.
Left back has been an issue for United for some time now, with the sense growing that Luke Shaw has never really recovered from the broken leg he suffered in September 2015. Brandon Williams has shown promise, but he is very inexperienced. Leicester’s Ben Chilwell is understood to be the preferred option–and Leicester is resigned to one of its big-name players going–but United will face a battle with Chelsea for the England defender.
Highly impressive as the Fernandes-Pogba axis is, it is not enough. They cannot play every game, and Fred has shown only flashes of quality. Lazio’s Serbia international Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has been repeatedly linked with United in previous seasons and would seem an ideal candidate to shadow Pogba’s hybrid role. The issue, though, is whether United would be willing to meet a fee expected to be in the region of $90 million. Aston Villa's Jack Grealish is also an option, although he is a far more attacking presence.