This season, this season of COVID-19, will be remembered for years to come. No fans, all games on some format or another, and the infamous failed Super League. For any pretender to the Premier League throne, this was the season that could be taken advantage of. Where Leicester had once shocked the world, a little less of a dramatic win, could have seen Ole return to English League crown to Old Trafford.
What began as a temporary fix (after many a failed attempt to replace the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson), Ole Gunnar Solskjær found himself at the wheel long term, albeit after some turbulent up and downs. No one could ever question Ole’s desire to succeed, nor could they assume he’s not doing his very best to return old glory to the Red Devils. The question, the underlying notion is that he remains an unproven manager, that was installed only because of his Manchester United heritage.
With a disappointing stint at Cardiff City in 2014, followed by an underwhelming post at Molde, the Norwegian found himself thrust multiple levels up to the Old Trafford hot seat. The squad then, as the squad is now, was littered with big names and a massive earning roster of players. With David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal & Jose Mourinho assembling an expensive array of players between them, it was a varied dressing room of both personality and talent that Solskjær inherited.
After roughly two and a half years in the job, questions still remain of Solskjær and his credentials to achieve the levels demanded. The United fan base have to their credit been very patient with their former goal scorer, hoping and praying that he can deliver where others have failed, after Fergie. But as we end another season, it must be viewed as a missed opportunity to not regain the English League crown.
Liverpool stuttered and virtually gave up their league title defense by February. Their defensive injury crisis left them unable to sustain their fabled style of play, and multiple games were lost over a drastic mid season collapse. They themselves rallied to finish and impressive 3rd in the league, and with less goals conceded that Manchester United, amazingly. Tottenham did Tottenham things, and fell short with a lack of direction and then manager. Arsenal became the most inconsistent and poorest version of their recent selves. Chelsea plundered vast amounts of money on players that were gettable, instead of targeting those they really needed. A somewhat lopsided squad of attackers (under the relative novice, Frank Lampard), left too much for him to work out, and he was eventually dismissed. Even the multi talented and adventurous Leicester could not be looked upon with too much fear, with Brendan Rodgers shuffling the pack maybe a little too much at times.
This left the neighborhood rivalry of Manchester United & City, two giants of English football and the finishing 1st & 2nd of this past season. City, to their credit played remarkable football at times, and managed to mould a side formidable enough to waltz to another league title. One could argue that their confidence grew more & more with a view to their rivals, Liverpool, and their failures after Christmas. City did not start well, but later motored away. When Liverpool did fall away, there was really only one winner, and in that lies the issue. Why were Manchester United not able to capitalize on the open league, and at least challenge to the end.
Bruno Fernandes stands out as a true success in in his short period at United, though the opportunity to add at least one other to their midfield seems odd. Donny Van Dee Beek seemed like a signing to add depth, but a midfield enforcer and controller would have given United far more balance within their team. Scott Mctominay is a good player, and Fred offers needed energy, but a Nemanja Matic replacement should have been sought as a priority. Jose Mourinho saw the need for such a player in signing him, but his advancing years and dwindling powers meant there was and obvious hole to be filled.
Fernandinho has been a tremendous player throughout his City career, and Pep Guardiola had the foresight to usher in a long term replacement before it became critical. Rodri now sits within an amazing midfield alongside the world class Kevin De Bruyne & Ilkay Gundogan. The drop off of Fernandinho was felt the season before last, when he was forced into a backline role. The league was lost to a devastating Liverpool team, though the task was already underway to build a new core. Ruben Dias was signed last summer to improve a questionable defense, and the solidity of seasons past was restored.
Manchester United chose last summer to chase the marquee signing of one Jaden Sancho. With Mason Greenwood within the ranks, this was maybe not the priority that needed pursuing. The fact that United could not capitalize on Liverpool’s downturn and City’s slow start, is a worry for next term, given the final points total of the three. The major teams that so struggled, for whatever reason, will surely return to usual business next season. Liverpool have elite and world class players returning from injury, and will no doubt invest after a failed year. Chelsea, in appointing Thomas Tuchel, have a top class manger that will no doubt look to mould his squad during the off season. Tottenham have the players, and with the correct manager installed, will surely emerge stronger once more.
The factors that remain, are that United may have had their best possible period under Solskjær, and still come up short in the title race. To rely on the evergreen Edison Cavani can not be viewed as anything but short term thinking. His ability to carry them to the top of the league is surely not aligned with his advancing years. The potential signing of Harry Kane has been muted, and his signature would aid any side, but it may still be that marquee signing that is craved, yet not entirely needed. The protection of the defense, and ability to better unleash Bruno & Pogba should be of paramount importance. The defense, despite costing over 200m, is simply not good enough to carry a team to the title. If the major contenders are to be in place and challenge Manchester City, United could find themselves fall down the league once more.
This season, the season of COVID-19, must be viewed as a missed opportunity for Manchester United. The installment of some form of Sporting Director, in Darren Fletcher, may again be a move to a man trusted more due his history with the club, instead of his actual ability to thrive in the role. Only time will tell whether the help Ole needs will be forthcoming, but this summer could well be the most critical in the young managers career. Another summer chasing those not needed must be avoided, and a structured plan of how to best unleash the obvious talents in the squad, must be carried out.
With a Europa League final now lost, the view should move quickly onto how to best achieve League success next term. Time will tell how Ole evolves, but his overall squad certainly needs work and that work must start now.