2020 had 'inconsistent' and 'topsy-turvy' written all over it for Manchester United, both on the pitch as well as off. United can never make matters easy for themselves and each time they progress a step forward, they tend to digress another two steps back.
The turn of the year marks 1,319 days since the club last captured silverware – their longest trophy drought since going 1,821 days between 1985-90.
On 16 February, ex-United man Harry Gregg passed away after battling illness. The Northern Irish goalkeeper notably represented Utd during the Busby Era, and was a survivor of the Munich air disaster.
Gregg made 247 appearances for the club between 1957-66.
Another United legend passed on, as European Cup & World Cup-winning midfielder Nobby Stiles succumbed to Alzheimer’s on October 30.
Manchester-born Stiles entered the fray in the aftermath to the Munich crash in which United lost 10 squad members. In need of fresh talent, Stiles was given his United debut by Matt Busby in 1960, aged 18.
Stiles was later a constant throughout England's 1966 World Cup setup, playing every minute of the Three Lions’ only tournament success to date.
The final day of 2020 saw the passing of ex-United manager Tommy Docherty, aged 92. Docherty took over at Old Trafford four years after Busby's Utd conquered Europe in 1968. After inheriting an aging squad, Docherty could not avoid the club being relegated to the Second Division for the first time since 1937.
'The Doc' laid new foundations which saw Utd promoted at the first time of asking, followed by two successive FA Cup Final appearances. Following the 1977 FA Cup success under Docherty, the Scottish manager was dismissed following an extramarital affair with a staff member's wife.
Months after losing his elder brother Jack to dementia, Sir Bobby Charlton was diagnosed with the same brain disease.
Sir Bobby, 83, has been a member of United's board of directors since 1984.
On the pitch in 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men experienced the highs, the lows and everything in between. A few of United’s more influential performances in the past 12 months included the 182nd Manchester derby – the club‘s last home match before football was suspended in March.
Anthony Martial put Utd ahead courtesy of Bruno Fernandes‘ adroit free-kick before Scott McTominay sealed the victory deep into stoppage time, in front of a beaming Stretford End.
Other highlights this past year saw a 5-0 home walloping of RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League, in addition to away wins at Paris Saint-Germain (where Marcus Rashford duly stole the show) and at Southampton where the team displayed an inspiring comeback win, featuring a brace from summer signing Edinson Cavani.
Perhaps United's most demoralising result of 2020 came at the expense of ex-manager José Mourinho and his Spurs side, who handed the Red Devils a 1-6 battering at Old Trafford.
An embarrassing loss in Istanbul ultimately cost Utd progression to the Champions League knockouts.
The most recent Manchester derby was extremely humdrum in comparison to its predecessor.
The inconsistency in United's form is uncanny. From match to match we wonder which team will be on show – the sloppy, perfunctory side or the one indeed capable of putting on a positive, commanding display. Out of 9 games in December 2020, Utd won 5, lost 2, and drew 2.
Following a loss at Liverpool in January, United went 18 games unbeaten on the road – 14 of which were victories. Despite going behind in all but one away matches this league season, United have rallied back and taken 19 points from 21 on offer.
With their victory at Sheffield Utd in December, Solskjaer’s men set a new club record of 10 consecutive PL away wins.
On their travels this season, Man Utd have scored 34 goals in 13 games across all competitions.
On the contrary United's form at home – particularly behind closed doors – has been beyond mystifying and unsatisfactory. Until the recent Roses derby versus Leeds Utd, the side had netted just 3 goals and collected 5 points from a possible 18.
In 2020, without fans in attendance, United won just 7 of 15 home matches.
Man Utd versus 'Big Six' teams in 2020 (all comps):
W D L
Arsenal 0 0 2
Chelsea 1 2 1
Liverpool 0 0 1
Man City 2 1 1
Spurs 0 1 1
On paper the squad generally look the right breed of players who embody the calibre and character associated with the badge, however on the pitch it sometimes tells a different story.
Too many a time have the team conceded preventable goals courtesy of a leaky backline, collectively far too susceptible to facetious errors.
Harry Maguire evidently was given the captain's armband far too promptly, but has so far shown a more promising second season in red.
Dean Henderson is continually knocking on David De Gea’s door for the #1 spot in United’s goal. The 23-year-old English 'keeper has kept three successive clean sheets in the league cup and will be poised to retain his place in between the sticks for the semi-final tie against Man City.
With plenty to choose from in midfield, the boss can constantly rotate his consortium in the middle of the park. Bruno Fernandes has been a breath of fresh air for the squad and has taken them to new levels since joining a year ago. The boisterous Bruno is visibly United’s most influential and vocal player on the pitch and it is very apparent that the Portuguese playmaker would make an iconic Man United skipper.
Fernandes' hunger to win is ever so evident and he captained the XI in Paris where the team put on an inspired performance.
United's #18 has had more goal involvements (43 in 44 games) than any other teammate since his arrival. In 22 games across all competitions this season, the ‘Portuguese magnifico’ has netted 14 goals and created 9 more.
Marcus Rashford MBE has netted 45 goals since Solskjaer's appointment in December 2018, the most scored by any Utd player under a single manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Rashford bagged six goals during the Champions League group stages – no player scored more in the same span.
The 23-year-old has also been lauded for his charity work off the pitch.
Despite sinking down to the Europa League, United still have four trophies to aim for in 20/21. After reaching three semi-finals last season, Solskjaer's army will be looking to go all the way in each and every one of them this time around.
Aside from two Community Shields, Utd have won just three major trophies since May 2013. Should the team fail to deliver trophy success in 2021, the gaffer's job may well be up in the air.
Solskjaer’s charges start 2021 with three consecutives clashes at Old Trafford, across three different competitions. A New Year's Day league encounter with Aston Villa is followed by the visit of Man City in the EFL Cup semis, and then days later an FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Watford.
Their following three are all league games away from home at Burnley, Liverpool and Fulham.
Utd are drawn against Real Sociedad in the first knockout round in the Europa League. The first leg is set to take place on 18 February in San Sebastián, with the return leg seven days later in Manchester.
Thus far Solskjaer’s transfer hit-rate has been nothing short of pristine, and tons better than any of his predecessors post-Sir Alex. The baby-faced assassin's attempt at a cultural reset in M16 has been as successful as it was imperative when he took over 2 years ago. Solskjaer's man-management has also notably been considerably impeccable.
However when it comes to running a football club and making football-related decisions, there is a massive cloud of ineptitude hanging above Ed Woodward and his subordinates Matt Judge & Richard Arnold – all three of whom are qualified in accountancy.
The predictable efforts of United's chief negotiators saw the club miss out on all four of Solskjaer's reported priority targets in the summer transfer market.
Already with a frail and one-dimensional senior squad, there was dire need for world-class talent to walk through the doors at the Theatre of Dreams.
Utd conducted unusually shrewd business in signing Donny Van de Beek from Ajax as a cheaper alternative to Jack Grealish, for whom Villa demanded £75M.
After flirting over a transfer for Jadon Sancho for the better part of a year, United did not budge on Borussia Dortmund's £100M price tag for the 20-year-old England international.
Last-ditch attempts saw a quadruple signing towards the window close, two of which have gone directly into the mix with the senior team.
Brazilian left-back Alex Telles arrived from Benfica while experienced centre-forward Edinson Cavani, 33, joined on a free transfer after leaving PSG.
Uruguayan winger Facundo Pellistri, 18, also signed on the dotted line but is yet to have a runout with the first-team.
Despite seeming to have strengthened in depth, a couple of untimely mishaps may yet dent United's hopes to ascend to the top of the football pyramid.
Executive vice-chairman Woodward has suggested that the club will base the core of their squad recruitment around the summer window, however the prospect of a big name signing this January should not be ruled out so easily. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has proven to be the club‘s most ambitious acquisition in some years.
A defensive signing is a must, and United could well run a coup for Leipzig centre-half Dayot Upamecano – another one of Solskjaer's reported summer primary targets.
As with any other transfer window, Utd will most likely be linked with almost every player under the sun, and it will be inevitably impossible to distinguish the genuine talks from the notional ones.
Whispers about Sancho are bound to crop up and it could yet be another dreadful transfer window for United fans alike.
Unlike at first-team level, the club's recruitment at youth level has been exquisite. Utd captured the signing of attacker Amad Diallo from Italian side Atalanta, with the player set to complete his move in January.
The 18-year-old Ivorian is tipped to be amongst the top 3 talents globally in his age group and, similarly to Pellistri, will most likely initially get a run of games with the reserves.
United have also acquired other hot prospects such as striker Charlie McNeill, 17, from neighbours Man City, as well as Joe Hugill, 17, from Sunderland and 16-year-old defender Marc Jurado from Barcelona.
Ecuadorean international midfielder Moises Caicedo, 19, is reportedly on the verge of completing a move to the red half of Manchester for a transfer fee of £5M.
Pertaining to outgoing transfers, Utd may be looking to get several players off the books including Marcos Rojo and Sergio Romero, who have so far this season gotten minimal playing time if any at all. Odion Ighalo's loan deal expires at the end of January.
Jesse Lingard and Tim Fosu-Mensah are also seemingly surplus to requirements.
However nobody but Phil Jones tops the list of liabilities in Solskjaer's ranks. The defender was purchased as a 19-year-old in 2011 and has made a lousy 224 appearances in almost a decade.
Jones, now a pariah in the United setup, last donned the red jersey a year ago during a 6-0 win over Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup.
Despite spending a bulk of his stay in the physio room, Jones is currently the longest-serving squad member together with De Gea. Jones has served under five permanent managers and is just 18 months away from earning a testimonial match with the club.
Although it may have not seemed so at the time, the signing of Jones went on to epitomise United's recruitment during the Glazer era.
Pre-2005, the club was frequently linked with huge names in world football, including Alan Shearer and Ronaldinho. However the dubbed 'Glazernomics' were disguised by the ingenious Sir Alex and his right-hand man, CEO David Gill.
Since the takeover in 2005, wise buys at the club have been very few and far between; Dimitar Berbatov (2008), Robin van Persie (2012) and Bruno Fernandes (2020) are amongst a select few that have actually done adequate justice towards the money laid out by the hierarchy.
All in all, the vast majority of signings in the past 15 years have been of sub-United level.
Looking back, it is ever so clear that the current owners have right throughout shown the slightest ambition towards astute investment into the squad.
In 2009, United sold Cristiano Ronaldo for a then world-record fee of £80M, most of which went straight into the Glazers’ back pockets. The Portuguese superstar was subsequently replaced by 30-year-old Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia from Wigan, French winger Gabriel Obertan from Bordeaux, and young Senegalese striker Mame Biram Diouf; the incoming quartet cost an accumulative £25M.
In 2010, United's all-time top goalscorer Wayne Rooney forced the first of two failed attempts to leave the club, citing a lack of ambition shown in the market following the departure of talisman Ronaldo.
That same summer Utd acquired young English defender Chris Smalling, Mexican striker Javier Hernández, and Portuguese winger Bebé – all costing no more than £22M.
Bebé amassed a total of 2 league appearances during his 4-year stint at OT.
Alexis Sánchez and Ángel Di María are the worst modern examples of displeasing business under the Glazers, with Sánchez believed to have earned a yearly salary in the region of £20M during his miserable spell in Manchester.
With regards to competing at the level of the world’s best teams, a club executive who are in it for themselves more than for the franchise itself (and supporters thereof) are more than likely to set up the club for failure.
A new manager at the helm would only be another huge step in the wrong direction. On the other hand, it is ever so essential for the club to recruit in the capacity of a director of football operations. Edwin van der Sar, who brokered the deal for Donny Van de Beek, could and should be amongst the frontrunners to work together with the coaching team as well as with the club executive.
Other accredited candidates around Europe include Luis Campos and Monchi – currently the directors of football at Lille and Sevilla, respectively.
Bruno Fernandes with his 3rd PL POTM award
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has restored the feel-good factor at Manchester United