Having added Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to a squad that finished second in the Premier League and reached the Europa League final, expectations are even higher than usual at Manchester United. But can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bring silverware, perhaps even a first post-Sir Alex Ferguson league title, to Old Trafford?
The title is just a DM away
Perhaps more than any of the big-six sides (with the possible exception of Chelsea), Manchester United's transfer business so far this summer looks to have raised them up a level. From probable top-four contenders to as near to a lock for Champions League qualification as one could predict in this country. An upgrade alongside Harry Maguire looked like it would be a shrewd move as the campaign drew to its conclusion; there was no better option on the market than Varane.
The same was emphatically true of Sancho, already one of the best right wingers in the world at 21 years of age. If that flank sometimes looked like an afterthought for Solskjaer's left bias last season, a dumping ground for repurposed forwards and the out of form Mason Greenwood. Come the new season, United can attack you with Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba (or Marcus Rashford when he has returned from shoulder surgery) on one side with their $100 million man. It is the sort of attack you could see winning titles. Their defense looks no less impressive.
If there is one thing that is holding you back from seriously believing in their title candidacy it might just be what happens in the engine room. Scott McTominay and Fred are good players -- the same sort of players as well -- but if they are the foundation for your attacking play and the shield for your defense, then there may well be moments where they are exposed. Neither is a hugely convincing defensive presence, last season they had tackle success rates of 27.7 percent in the Brazilian's case and 37.5 for the Scottish international.
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According to Opta's per 90 minutes metrics Fred and McTominay rank: 57th and 150th in interceptions, 36th and 111th in total tackles, 264th and 92nd for duel success rate, 11th and 76th for possession regains. Neither cracked fbref's top 50 for successful pressure percentage.
Those numbers do not exactly compare favorably to Wilfred Ndidi or Declan Rice, the latter a player in whom United hold a firm interest without being willing to match West Ham's £100 million price tag, and the same could be said of both players' ability to progress the ball forward, where Fred is fairly decent at moving the ball up to the final third but not so excellent to mitigate his defensive weaknesses if he is not next to a natural ball winner.
This becomes all the more pressing if Solskjaer does indeed stick to the 4-3-3 he has used in preseason. Be it Nemanja Matic, Fred or McTominay, there is no convincing option to drop into the space between the two center backs. For now, United's midfield is good without being great. A sprinkling of stardust in that engine room and you would not need much convincing to label them a serious contender for the title.
Sancho wins Player of the Year
Whether United win the league or not, expect Sancho to be one of its stars from early in the season. Adaptation time should be a prerequisite for a player entering a new league, but you suspect that he will need less time than most. For one thing, most of his footballing education came in this country, first with Watford and then Manchester City.
His time with Borussia Dortmund made plain what City knew all along, that this was a talent of rare quality. Over 137 games for BVB, he registered 50 goals and 64 assists. In Europe's top five leagues, only Thomas Muller, Kevin De Bruyne and Lionel Messi bettered his 27 assists over the last two seasons, and in the best of his seasons so far (2019-20), he averaged 1.26 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes, a return bettered only by Riyad Mahrez. In almost every statistical category over recent years, he has ranked among the very best players in Europe.
He may not match that sort of output in the Premier League -- though It would be fair to question how vast the gulf between a mid-table team in England and Germany is -- but even getting close to it would certainly put him among the league's top scorers.
There can be few skill sets quite so ideally suited to Manchester United's sense of identity than Sancho: A direct, fearless winger who always plays on the front foot, has an eye for a goal or assist and is blessed with blistering pace. It would be holding him to impossibly high standards to ask him to be as good as some of the great wide men of this club's past (George Best, Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance), but what can be said is that he feels like a natural fit into that lineage. He is not of that same standard, but he is just 21 years of age. There is room for him to develop even further, to live up to the lofty levels that his predecessors reached.
If he gets close, do not doubt for a moment that he will find himself at the forefront of the race for individual prizes where objective performance invariably intermingles with narrative. A great Sancho season and a great United season to go with it seems eminently plausible and will almost certainly see him garlanded with awards.
The set piece problem eases
If there was a cause for frustration in Manchester United's defense last season, whose 44 goals conceded were 12 more than champions City, it was how many of the goals felt like they could have been easily dealt with, above all from set pieces. Only Leeds United let in more than the Red Devils' 14 from dead balls, meaning that nearly a third of the goals they let in came when they had a chance to organize their defense.
There are reasons to think that those woes will ease next year. After all those 14 set-piece goals came from shots worth 8.92 expected goals (xG), a tally which is dead in the middle among the Premier League sides. Opponents scored a lot more than the value of the chances they had with many of those goals they conceded in the 0.08 to 0.15xG range, they allowed a relatively reasonable six shots from set pieces worth more than 0.25xG.
Then there are the the personnel changes. For a start, adding Varane means one more steady head at the back even if in the short term he will need time to familiarize himself with his new teammates. More crucial might be Eric Ramsay, the extremely well-regarded coach who joined them from the Chelsea youth setup with a specific remit to improve United at set pieces. It is likely that he will look to adapt a system that seemed to oscillate between zonal and man marking on a game-by-game basis and which even regulars like Maguire did not always seem to grasp.
Set-piece coaches work. Take Arsenal for example: Once a laughing stock for how they dealt with dead balls, they trimmed 10 goals of the number they let in after Andreas Georgson arrived, dropping from 15 in 2019-20 (the 18th-best record in the top flight) to a league-leading five in 2020-21 with opponent xG from dead balls going from 13.77 to 7.11. Such improvement ought not really to be a surprise, logically having one mind whose sole focus is on defending and attacking plans when the ball goes dead should mean it receives a level of focus and imagination that can bring swift improvement.
- Premier League finish: 3rd
- Top scorer: Bruno Fernandes
- Player of the season: Jadon Sancho
- Something unexpected: Paul Pogba signs a new contract but only a short extension of around two years