Solskjaer's Reds go marching on!
Updated: May 27, 2021
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signed off his second full season as Manchester United manager in heartbreaking fashion as the Red Devils missed out on a 2nd UEFA Europa League crown since 2017.
22 years to the day since Solskjaer stunned Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou, the baby-faced assassin missed out on the chance to hoist his first honour as United boss.
436 days after Scott McTominay electrified Old Trafford in Man Utd's last home game with an in-house attendance, Edinson Cavani lit up the Stretford End with an ingenious 35-yard dink as the club welcomed back 10,000 match-goers for their final home fixture of 2020/21 against Fulham.
United closed out their league campaign with a 2-1 victory at Wolves, going the entire Premier League season without tasting defeat on their travels. This just days before they fell short to Villarreal in Gdańsk – with 2,000 Reds in support – to continue Solskjaer's prolonged wait for his first piece of silverware as Man Utd gaffer, and the club’s first trophy since winning Europa under José Mourinho in Stockholm four years ago.
In 2019/20 United picked up 1 point of a possible 6 versus West Ham and just 2 out of 6 against Southampton. This time out Solskjaer's Reds did the league double over both the Hammers and the Saints in addition to just 5 other PL teams (Aston Villa, Brighton, Burnley, Newcastle & Wolves).
Utd picked up 4 points each against local foes Leeds Utd and Man City, including a 6-1 home win to Leeds and a 2-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium.
Solskjaer's men finished the 20/21 league season with 74 points, their 2nd highest tally post-Ferguson. United’s failure to turn up versus fellow title rivals ultimately cost them a 21st league success as five points went amiss to each of Arsenal, Leicester City & Liverpool, and four more to Chelsea.
Utd dropped an additional five points with a home loss to Crystal Palace in their opening league game followed by a goalless draw at Selhurst Park in March.
In the Champions League the Reds were dealt a tough hand being drawn in the dubbed 'Group of Death' albeit they got off to a flying start and required just a single point from their final two fixtures. A home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain put heaps of pressure on Ole's men and an away loss ensued at the hands of RB Leipzig to dump the Reds out of Europe's elite.
United were demoted to the Europa League Round of 32 where they met Real Sociedad, featuring Adnan Januzaj and ex-Man City star David Silva. The team in red had the tie all but wrapped up following a 4-0 victory in San Sebastian.
Perhaps United's toughest Europa opposition came in the R16 when AC Milan visited the M16. The Rossoneri gave it their all in the 1st leg and the home team were fortunate to escape with a 1-1 stalemate. The return leg in Milan saw Paul Pogba prove the difference, scoring the only goal of the game just minutes after subbing on for Rashford at half-time.
In the quarter- and semifinals United eased past Granada (4-0 agg.) and fought off Roma (8-5 agg.) to earn their first cup final appearance since 2017.
United were confined to only Italian and Spanish opposition during their Europa journey, with the fifth and final hurdle proving problematic for Solskjaer's red army.
The Reds did not put in a performance worthy of champions and agonisingly missed out on a 2nd Europa crown. David de Gea botched his penalty kick and also failed to save any of Villarreal’s 11 spot-kicks as Utd lost out to Unai Emery's Yellow Submarine in the Final at Stadion Gdańsk, 10-11 on penalties.
In the FA Cup, United scored big wins at home to Liverpool and West Ham but were later overwhelmed by eventual winners Leicester City in the quarterfinals, missing out on a trip or two to Wembley.
Solskjaer reached the EFL Cup semi-finals for a second successive year and once again lost out to Pep Guardiola’s Man City.
In and amongst the squad, Bruno Fernandes stood out for the second season running as his all-or-nothing mentality bolstered the Red Devils to one of their most promising campaigns in the best part of a decade. Fernandes, 26, was the main man pulling the strings in midfield and he notched 28 goals & 17 assists across the board.
Superb on the ball and just as brilliant off of it, Fernandes walked away with a 2nd successive Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award and also grabbed United's Goal of the Season accolade for his curling effort against Everton in February.
The Portuguese playmaker's influence amongst the team has drawn comparisons with the beloved king of the Stretford End, Eric Cantona. In his first full season as a Red (1993-94) the iconic Frenchman scored 18 goals and gave 12 assists in 34 appearances as Ferguson's troops completed their first PL + FA Cup double.
Fernandes racked up identical goals and assists in this past PL season, in three games more than Cantona did 27 years ago.
Cavani has been another influential player in the attacking third and when in the starting XI, he scored 12 goals and played 4 assists in 21 games across all competitions. The 34-year-old's movement and goal-scoring prowess have United fans reminiscing of a prime Ruud van Nistelrooy and they are undoubtedly looking forward to catching a glimpse of 'El Matador' in front of a packed Stretford End.
Cavani has also been a perfect example for Mason Greenwood to emulate. Greenwood's 17 PL goals has made him the highest-scoring teenager for the club and fourth overall in competition history. The young forward has until the end of September to surpass former Reds Wayne Rooney & Michael Owen and their respective tallies of 30 and 40 league goals as a teenager.
Paul Pogba seems content to see out his contract which runs out in June 2022 despite itching for a move away from Manchester for some time now. However the clear progress being made under Ole may persuade the 28-year-old to stick around for at least one more year.
Solskjaer requires one midfield player to simultaneously nail down the roles of both Scott McTominay and Fred. The latter had a bright early-season before becoming prone to lackadaisical errors as of late. McTominay, meanwhile, produced his highest-scoring season of 7 goals but also appears uncertain at times.
In order to accommodate both Pogba and Fernandes into the midfield, the club will likely be in the market for a Mediano to sit in front of the defence and win back possession.
Donny van de Beek was lined up to be the club's marquee summer signing albeit he has found playing time extremely elusive since switching from Ajax. The Dutch box-to-box midfielder started just 15 games in his first season at the club – averaging 40 minutes per appearance.
Almost 6 years on from his devastating and career-threatening double leg fracture, Luke Shaw has reasserted himself amongst the very best left-backs in England. Particularly since the start of this year Shaw has tremendously stepped up his game and has played an integral part both in defence and further upfield, resulting in the English fullback winning himself the Players' Player of the Year award.
Shaw, 25, has become synonymous with his darting runs down the left channels which has also seen him recalled into Gareth Southgate's national team setup ahead of the European Championships.
Shaw looks extremely comfortable playing alongside countryman Harry Maguire, who after a mediocre first year at Old Trafford has proven himself an invaluable asset to the side that elevates the team's defensive unit.
For the most part of 20/21 Maguire was ubiquitous for United, having playing a phenomenal 3,048 consecutive minutes before going off injured at Aston Villa in May. The skipper was in a race to be fit for the Europa League finale but could only find a place amongst the bench.
Dean Henderson, another England international, made a prolific statement in attempting to seize the spot in Utd’s goal from David de Gea. Henderson, 24, made the position his own when de Gea took compassionate leave in March during which time the English 'keeper displayed encouraging performances.
Henderson kept 13 clean sheets in 26 matches in 20/21 in comparison to de Gea's 12 clean sheets in 36. On average de Gea conceded a goal every 69 minutes whereas his English counterpart conceded once every 105 minutes.
The young goalie is amongst a flurry of Academy graduates who form part of the current senior squad. Anthony Elanga became Academy graduate no.14 to be handed his debut by the manager since December 2018 and the 19th different teenager to register a PL goal for the club. A few years his senior are the likes of Rashford, Pogba, McTominay and Tuanzebe – all of whom have captained the XI under Solskjaer.
Shola Shoretire, 17, was awarded the Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year (u/18s) and 18-year-old French attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri claimed the Denzil Haroun (u/23s) prize.
United are desperate for dire improvement in their set-pieces, at one end of the pitch just as much as the other. The team conceded 14 goals from set-pieces (excluding penalties) accounting for 32% of the 44 goals conceded in the league in 20/21.
On a more positive note Utd secured 31 points from losing positions, more than any other team this term. Ole’s men portrayed a frequent theme of winning matches after half-time, 45 of their 73 goals scored in the second half of games.
Fernandes directly played a part in 45 goals across all competitions, with Rashford and Cavani getting 36 & 23 goal contributions, respectively.
Fernandes 28 17
Rashford 21 15
Cavani 17 6
Greenwood 12 6
Martial 7 9
McTominay 7 1
Pogba 6 9
In 302 games from the start of Moyes’ until the end of Mourinho’s tenures, only twice did the Red Devils score five or more goals. Conversely in exactly half the amount of matches with Solskjaer at the helm United have netted 5+ in nine different matches.
Unlike his three predecessors, ex-Red Ole has retained a salubrious relationship with his squad due to the fact that he has previously been exactly where they are, and not to mention his top notch man-management.
The manager's technical team is also made up of a handful ex-players of the club. Mick Phelan together with Michael Carrick, an ex-Utd skipper, are ideal figures to influence this young and hungry squad while Kieran McKenna who, although is not a former Red, does portray a key role amongst the coaching staff at Carrington and on the touchline. Darren Fletcher was another one of Solskjaer's coaches before being appointed the club's first technical director.
Nicky Butt's departure after 9 years managing the famed Academy coincided with the appointment of John Murtough as the club’s first-ever Director of Football. Reports have suggested that Butt was snubbed of the role and, not for the first time, decided to follow a new trajectory away from Old Trafford.
As if the club executive had not already been skating on thin ice amongst the United faithful, their involvement in the fiasco that was the European Super League served as the last straw as Ed Woodward tendered his resignation as executive vice-chairman of the club, effective from the end of 2021.
Taking over from ex-CEO David Gill never was going to be an easy transition however Woodward’s 8-year tenure as the club’s top dog has by no means been an amicable one. Under Woodward, United placed inside the top 4 in just four Premier League campaigns – once each under van Gaal & Mourinho and twice under Solskjaer. The club has won three major trophies since 2014 and are yet to finish above local foes Man City since Sir Alex stepped down the previous year.
Woodward's successor is yet to be named however it is more than likely to be one of his current delegates, CFO Cliff Baty or managing director Richard Arnold.
Last month the Manchester Evening News reported that United are in the market for two new defenders, a forward and a midfielder. England internationals Harry Kane and Declan Rice – both of whom may be on the move in the near future – have been linked with moves to Old Trafford amongst a flurry of players in England's premier division.
Aside from local talent, club scouts will undoubtedly have eyes lurking across Europe for that extra bit of quality to add to their ranks.
Solskjaer will presumably be back in the market for Jadon Sancho after missing out on the England international last year due to Borussia Dortmund's farcical demands. Sancho's selling price has been slashed since then and Utd may be looking to sign the 21-year-old winger for around £70M.
Sancho's Dortmund teammate Erling Haaland, 20, is being headhunted by just about every European powerhouse but the striker has a £65M release clause which can only be triggered in July 2022 hence it is unlikely the Norwegian superstar will leave before then unless an astronomical transfer fee is received.
United urgently need a world-class centre half and Raphael Varane is the front-runner and prime candidate to partner Maguire in the heart of defence. The French international has 12 months remaining on his deal at Real Madrid who appear to be ailing financially, meaning Florentino Perez may look to ship out Varane, 28, for a fee of around £50m.
The World Cup winner has celebrated multiple successes during his time with Los Blancos including four Champions League titles.
On top of that another defender is needed, specifically at right full-back, and Pierre Kalulu of AC Milan would provide replete competition for Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Kululu turns 21 next month and is also capable of filling in at centre-back.
A more experienced alternative is Kieran Trippier, 30, with 107 Premier League appearances to his name during spells with Burnley and Tottenham. Trippier has just 12 months remaining on his current contract at Atletico Madrid and is reportedly also wanted by former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino at PSG.
United require a critical signing in defensive midfield and PSG's Idrissa Gana Gueye could be a firm option. Gueye made 134 PL appearances with Villa and later Everton but it may take a lot to prise him away from Paris, with the 31-year-old Senegalese mediano a primary feature in Pochettino's setup.
Otherwise United may attempt to use Jesse Lingard as leverage in an attempt to bring over Rice, 22, from West Ham. The Hammers' regular skipper could cost up to £100M however if they want Lingard permanently then Utd will undoubtedly insist on including Rice in any deal with David Moyes.
Lingard, 28, returns from loan in addition to Diogo Dalot and Andreas Pereira – both of whom spent this past season in Italy with Milan and Lazio, respectively. Lazio qualified for the Europa League while the Rossoneri will join the Red Devils in the Champions League commencing September.
Young wingers Tahith Chong & Facundo Pellistri also return to Manchester following respective stints in Belgium and Spain.
United will need to let go of a handful of players in order to raise transfer funds and alleviate the club's exorbitant wage bill. If Solskjaer opts with Henderson as his starting goalkeeper going forward then the upcoming off-season would be the ideal time to part ways with de Gea. The Spanish shot-stopper has been a tremendous component in the side over the past 10 years but will be far too costly to not be a regular starter.
de Gea is contracted at Old Trafford for 2 more years and if Utd decide to cash in on the 30-year-old goalie he would presumably sell for around £30m.
Fellow Spaniard, Juan Mata is the only senior outfield player whose contract runs out next month.
Goalkeepers Sergio Romero and Lee Grant appear to be heading for the exit doors with both their contracts expiring at the end of June. Former Academy goalie Tom Heaton has been tipped to be United's next backup 'keeper.
Physio room resident Phil Jones has not made an on-field appearance in 18 months and is still under contract until 2023. As far as the club's progression is concerned, the defender is deadweight and should be offloaded at the soonest possible opportunity.