Back to the Future: What needs to change at Manchester United next season?


The 2020/21 season was one where Manchester United were the nearly team. They reached the Everest base camp without quite making it to the top of the mountain, they had the finish line in sight several times without quite being able to cross it.

Before any detailed analysis, here’s a quick review of their season from the perspective of results:

They were top of the league in January before ending the season 12 points behind their rivals, Manchester City.

They were top of their Champions League group after four matches before agonisingly finishing third and dropping down to the Europa League.

In the Europa League final, they were involved in the longest penalty shootout in a European final history before a heart-breaking defeat which moved fans and players alike to tears.

They reached the quarter final and semi-final respectively, of the FA Cup and Carabao Cup before losing to Leicester City and Manchester City who would then go on to lift the trophies.

Now, there are multiple reasons for argument as to why the team didn’t end up laying their hands on silverware. Some would say the overall squad lacked depth which caught up with them in the closing stages, some would say the team simply bottled it at the end, some would say the substitutions made were too late, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lacked tactical nous and bravery to shift the opponent’s momentum, some would say the fine margins didn’t go their way, that they lacked the sliver of luck needed to sometimes turn defeat to victory.

The truth is, all of them are correct to an extent but it wasn’t really a single factor that led to these defeats, it was a combination of the above.

The two common tactical aspects that underlined these defeats was a lack of organization while setting up to defend opposition set pieces and an inability to finish off clear cut chances.

Both the goals conceded against City in the Carabao Cup semi-final as well as the one against Villarreal in the Europa League final were directly from set pieces where United’s zonal marking turned out to be a weakness.

Coming to the second point, that of missing chances, nowhere was this more apparent than the game against Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford where United dominated the game for an hour but missed gilt edged opportunities to put the game to bed. Back came PSG, helped by a red card to Fred, and they picked off United in the last 20 minutes.

The quarter final against Leicester City in the FA Cup was a game where there is an argument that the strongest starting line-up wasn’t picked, especially the absence of Bruno Fernandes from the beginning. That was a game in which United were outplayed in all honesty and the late introduction of Bruno couldn’t quite reverse the momentum.

Moving on to the Europa League final, the major bone of contention was the decision to not substitute David De Gea for Dean Henderson in spite of knowing De Gea’s poor record at saving penalties. It was a bold call by Solskjaer which unfortunately did not pay off as De Gea ended up missing his penalty, while being unable to save any of the Villarreal spot kicks.

All of the above is of course in hindsight, and influenced by result bias. Truthfully, United were dominant in most of these matches except the Leicester City one, and it was the fine margins that went against them, and at the top end, elite sport is unforgiving to even the slightest mistakes.

How then should United approach the upcoming season so that the ultimate aim of winning silverware is realised?

To begin with, there needs to be an injection of quality, primarily on the right wing and in central midfield. Long standing target Jadon Sancho has already been secured and the club are working on potential deals for two Frenchmen, Raphael Varane and Eduardo Camavinga to improve the squad in central defence and midfield respectively. 

The trickle-down effect of this is that the overall squad becomes more balanced and Solskjaer doesn’t have to rely on this core 15 players all through the season and can afford to rotate more, which ties in with greater recovery time and less burnout.

Going on to the tactical aspect, set piece defending must improve, and that is not down to just personnel, but also coaching. The pre-season games (albeit against modest opposition) should give an idea as to whether the club have improved upon this specific weakness going into next season.

The third and most important factor, and the one hardest to quantify, is the psychological aspect. While regularly reaching semi-finals and finals is admirable, as it is an indicator of consistency, the eventual aim is to win trophies.

The squad is of course, on the whole, quite young, and most of the players haven’t had experience of playing in big games previously. Eventually, it can only be hoped that the players learn from the mistakes of the last two seasons and play the opposition on their own merits rather than let themselves get distracted by the occasion.

In some of those knockout games, it seemed like the players played within themselves, they were not prepared to take risks, that they didn’t truly trust their own skills and didn’t play to the edge of their ability.

While no team has a divine right to win a match of football, United almost always have the better set of players in a majority of their matches in terms of sheer quality, and therefore winning the biggest matches eventually comes down to trusting their own quality and ability on the biggest stages. 

Written by Avitaj Mitra

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