It is curious that, in the midst of a summer where their business is being done in such an assertive fashion, Manchester United still feel like they are one player, possibly more, away from being one player away from serious title contention.
Perhaps that is just a reflection on the sheer abundance of quality in the Premier League, where next season the English and European champions figure to be among the leading contenders along with a Liverpool side that will no longer be hamstrung by injuries. United merit being in the conversation alongside those clubs, not least thanks to their two new signings.
This could well be the year that Manchester United make the most of their multitude of riches. While so many of their counterparts in Europe and to a lesser extent at home are looking nervously at their balance sheets, the commercial juggernaut at Old Trafford steamrolls on, albeit not with quite the force it might have under different owners. Real Madrid aren't sure whether they can afford more years of Raphael Varane? No matter, United can.
The pursuit of Jadon Sancho reached its conclusion after more than a year, and after several summers of near misses with Real Madrid defenders, the Red Devils are increasingly confident that they will be able to sign Varane with an agreement in sight over personal terms for the France international. Both these players ought to fill immediate areas of need for United, finally offering them the cut and thrust on both flanks after a season where shutting down their left flank seemed to go a long way to stopping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. Meanwhile an upgrade on the good but not great Victor Lindelof is certainly welcome.
And yet, whilst they are undeniably going to be a better side than they were last season, when they finished 12 points off Manchester City in second, it feels like there is still more work to be done to turn Solskjaer's side into one that you would assertively back for major silverware at home and abroad.
The engine room
Above all, there are all sorts of unanswered questions over how United might set up their midfield. Reports earlier this month suggested Solskjaer wanted to move to a more attack-minded 4-3-3, likely one where Bruno Fernandes would receive the ball deeper as what was termed a "free eight" in Pep Guardiola's Manchester City side, rather than the more orthodox No.10 he functioned as before. Flanking him would presumably be Paul Pogba, more on whom later.
Such a system inevitably puts a great deal of pressure on the deepest of the midfield trio if, as seems to be the case, they are asked to be the link man and water carrier that liberates those further up the pitch. It would be fair to suggest that none of Solskjaer's current options could comfortably carry such a burden. Nemanja Matic is too old, Fred is more box-to-box than sitting midfielder and Scott McTominay is not at his best when asked to sit deep. Such players are not readily available and do not often come cheap, particularly when they require the pedigree to immediately settle in at the Theatre of Dreams.
United have been scouring the market for a potential option and CBS Sports reported on their interest in West Ham's Declan Rice last month, a player that is used to holding the fort in a 4-2-3-1 where Tomas Soucek has license to push into the opposing penalty area. The England international ticks almost any box Solskjaer might have. Defensively he has ranked in the Premier League's top 30 players for interceptions and ball recoveries per 90 minutes among those who have played more than 900 minutes over the past two seasons, according to Opta. Compared to his fellow defensive midfielders in the top flight he has been one of the fastest at progressing the ball up the field and last season saw him flourish with the ball at his feet, registering the fourth highest pass completion for a player in his position.
The issue for United is that a player like Rice would cost them what his manager David Moyes termed "Bank of England money". The same would be true of Leicester's Wilfred Ndidi. They may be the best commercial enterprise in football but they are no Paris Saint-Germain. There is no magic money tree at Old Trafford.
Still there must surely be a temptation to go for broke in this position between now and August 31. It is not merely that having that robust defensive midfielder adds a better player to the squad but that it can have an accelerative effect across Solskjaer's side. Pogba rarely looks better than he does with N'Golo Kante in close proximity to him and, be it in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, surrounding him with the quality midfield options that have been in such infrequent supply since he returned to the north west would surely get the best out of the France international.
That is, if he stays. With one year left on his contract and rumors swirling over a move to PSG that is not guaranteed, though Solskjaer made clear his desire to retain Pogba following his side's 4-2 friendly loss to Queens Park Rangers. "The talks are ongoing between Paul's representatives and the club's representatives," Solskjaer said. "All that I've ever heard with Paul is he's looking forward to the season."
PSG look to be the only realistic move for Pogba if he wants to leave the Premier League this summer and even they seem more focused on outgoings than further incomings after an early summer spree which brought them Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Achraf Hakimi. It may just be that he stays put, strengthening United's push for a first domestic title since 2013.
Around the edges
So strengthen the midfield and that's it, right? We can predict that United are title contenders without being laughed out of the debate? Not quite. Certainly it would make for a formidable opponent but pick away at this squad and you keep wanting more.
It is here one might mention the center forward options. A 34 year old Edinson Cavani, the specter of what might have been that is Anthony Martial and hot prospect Mason Greenwood might not be enough. However considering that in the last two years the three English clubs to have won the Premier League and Champions League have operated with either an unorthodox striker or none at all it is fair to ask whether it is that pressing an area for United to address. Better, perhaps, to trust that Dortmund are true in their resolve to hold on to Erling Haaland this summer and make the play to reunite him with Jadon Sancho next.
One area where United are known to be working on an addition is at right back, where Aaron Wan-Bissaka has carried too heavy a burden since his arrival from Crystal Palace two years ago. In that time he has played 6604 minutes in the Premier League and Champions League, a tally 'bettered' only by Maguire among the United squad. For such a physically demanding role as full back -- one where managers such as Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino often rotate almost game by game -- an alternative is required, particularly one who can offer the attacking thrust that Wan-Bissaka at times struggles to provide.
As such bringing Kieran Trippier back to the Premier League from Atletico Madrid looks to be a tempting option though one that has stalled out in recent weeks, prompting Atleti's favored replacement Hector Bellerin to instead move towards a switch to Inter Milan. Against sides that sit deep in numbers -- United's kryptonite last season -- a right flank that has Trippier fizzing crosses towards Cavani from wide while Sancho darts infield certainly sounds like a far more effective way to break teams down, lessening the reliance on Fernandes for moments of genius.
The missing piece
That might all be enough. There have certainly been seasons when a lesser side than this United have won the title but their operating assumption must surely be that each and every member of the Big Six and Leicester City will be better this season than they were last. After all in 2020-21 Liverpool suffered a remarkable injury crisis in just one position, Chelsea and Tottenham both sacked managers and Arsenal resembled a bottom three side before Christmas.
If United really want to win the battle of fine margins that could be the 2021-22 title race then they may need a truly elite goalkeeper. One of the key points of debate around Old Trafford last season was Dean Henderson or David de Gea. The answer might be neither.
It probably should not be De Gea, who has slipped back to at best a league average shot stopper since the heroics of the 2017-18 season. According to Opta's goals prevented metric United conceded 13.66 goals fewer in that campaign with De Gea in goal than they would have with the mean goalkeeper between the sticks. Since then they have conceded 1.3 goals more with the Spaniard in their side than they might have otherwise. His weakness down low to his left is relentlessly exposed by Premier League forwards whenever they get the chance and that aura that seemed to make him twice as big in the Old Trafford goal has swiftly vanished.
It was for that reason that Solskjaer turned to Henderson, who had excelled on loan at Sheffield United and looked reasonable enough over half a season in the United starting XI. The 24 year old may yet be the long term answer, a top tier goalkeeper to match Alisson or Ederson. Would you want to gamble a title challenge on it or attempt to pick up Keylor Navas now he faces the prospect of a backup role behind Gianluigi Donnarumma?
All of this costs and United have learned since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement that expenditure is no guarantor of success. But eight years on from that last Premier League title they look to have the core of a serious contender for the first time. Now if they could just make those few extra moves...