What do Manchester United need to do to turn themselves into title contenders?

As Manchester United head into 2021, growing whispers of a potential title challenge have been increasing. With United edging to a 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers they sit just three points behind leaders Liverpool. Traditionally, United title charges begin as they head into the new year, however they might still be a little away from a 21st league title. Let us consider the three key areas that might be preventing the title charge.

Full 90-minute performances

Let us be honest, United are yet to produce a full flawless 90-minute performance. In a way that could be perceived as positive. Three points off top spot and not yet hitting top gear? What will happen when they finally click for a full game? However, United are 15 games into the season, and it is yet to happen. If this continues then it will end up costing too many points to truly sustain a title challenge. 

Nevertheless, recent games have shown that we might be closer to finding these full performances. Too often United have started games far too slowly. Going behind in five of six away games this season have been results of dire first half performances. The fact that they have come back in every game has shown that whilst the first halves have been horrendous, the second halves have often bordered on the sublime. 

The last four games have shown better overall performances. The start against Leeds was the best seen by a United side in a long time. Two goals in three minutes? Manchester United? This season? Sounds like the start of a funny joke that a rival fan would post on twitter. It showed that this United side could start games with a roaring intensity. Scott McTominay typified this by bursting forward for both early goals. United would go on to score six but fell short of a complete performance. The Carabao cup quarter final against Everton was another good performance.

Flawless? No. Nonetheless, it was away to a good Everton side who had picked up three good wins in the league. Could United follow it up with a title challenge statement with a win against fellow top four side Leicester? Again, no. Arguably though, they should have. Leading the game twice, they couldn’t quite see it out. There were times where Leicester managed too much control in the game and a late Marcus Rashford deflected strike secured 1-0 win over Wolves. However, it was my next area that has been an issue a few times this season and most recently through away two points against the Foxes. 

A lack of clinical finishing 

At times this season United’s finishing has been very poor. Last season saw a breakthrough year for Mason Greenwood (19 goals, five assists) as he Anthony Martial (23 goals, 12 assists) and Marcus Rashford (22 goals 12 assists) scored 64 goals between them, assisting 29 times. This season has seen more of a struggle. Rashford (14 goals, eight assists) has kept his scoring up, but Martial (four goals, six assists) and Greenwood (three goals and three assists) have both suffered dry spells. Edinson Cavani came in during the transfer window but by then the season has already started. His United appearances have been a been a bit stop start with most being off the bench but four goals and two assists have shown that with a run of games, he will score goals. However, it is not the quantity of goals that is the only worry. United have lacked a clinical edge needed to fire the side to a 21st league title. 

When looking at just the league statistics, the big chances missed by United’s front four are eye-watering. Rashford has missed seven big chances in 15 games. Last season it was 13 in 31. Martial has five in 11. Last season it was 10 in 31. Greenwood’s is the most surprising. This year it is three in nine. Last season it was just two in 31. Although, two in 31 suggests some top finishing which is what we saw from the youngster. Cavani has also seen one big chance go begging, but in just eight premier league appearances, it is hard to place any fault on him just yet, especially when his three of this four goals in all competitions have given United wins. When you think back to just the Leicester game, Rashford missed two good chances. First, the header which was the easiest and then the one on one, that whilst a good save by Kasper Schmeichel, it should have still been put away. 

For all the praise Rashford has been given, on and off the field, this year, his shots to goal ratio is often criticised. You feel it can sometimes take him several opportunities to lead to a goal and that is backed up by the stats. Seven league goals from 39 shots, coupled with the seven big chances missed is not the best reading. Martial has returned one league goal from 21 shots and Greenwood just one from 19. If it wasn’t for Bruno Fernandes scoring ten goals in 15 games, then United wouldn’t be in the hunt at all and even he missed a big chance last night that looked like it would be costly. His goal return is one more than he managed in one more game from last season. If United’s striker’s start to find the net alongside him then it could make all the difference. 

As we have seen, Martial can go on scintillating runs, Greenwood is still raw but is a born finisher and Rashford will score goals, even if he will miss a few chances to get them. Add that in with Cavani who has looked sharp and Fernandes’ form then United would go close this season. 

Make signings in key positions – Defensive Midfield and Centre-Back

If you’re reading this and are going ‘United have three defensive midfielders’, then bear with me. When I say sign a defensive midfielder, I mean a real defensive midfielder. Someone who knows that position inside out and plays it week after week. I’m sorry, but as well as Fred and Scott McTominay have done this season, they are not the answer. Neither is Nemanja Matic. Matic has had his time. Too often he is caught out of position and you can say the same for Fred and McTominay. It isn’t their fault, they’re just not genuine defensive midfielders. Again, the stats back this up. 

The basic jobs for defensive midfielders are to win tackles, intercept passes and recover the ball. This season Fred, in 11 games has a tackle success of 39%, made 15 interceptions and recovered the ball 90 times. McTominay in 13 games has a tackle success of 43%, made 16 interceptions and recovered the ball 63 times and Matic in eight appearances has a tackle success of 42%, made 13 interceptions and recovered the ball 54 times. Now these numbers obviously mean nothing unless you compare to other players. Let’s take Wilfred Nidi, who missed the start of this season through injury and has only played seven games so far. He has a tackle success of 76%, has made 13 interceptions and recovered the ball 56 times. 

These stats show that United do not have a perfect defensive midfielder who can intercept the ball, recover the ball and win tackles. Fred can do one (recoveries). McTominay can do one (interceptions). Neither of them can do the job on their own. At Leicester, Ndidi does all three and then allows Youri Tielemans to push on further and unleash James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy further forward. 

As neither Fred, McTominay or Matic (anymore) can do this job on their own, United are left wide open when trying to play the 4-1-4-1 formation. They want to get Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek into the side and closer to Fernandes. Because of the lack of a world class defensive midfielder, Pogba or van de Beek are deeper than you would want them. If you look at when Barcelona were all conquering under Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets would sit in midfield and mop up anything that came forward and that allowed Xavi and Andres Iniesta to influence the game further up the field. Guardiola would replicate that at Manchester City, with Fernandinho being the Busquets and Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva taking the Xavi and Iniesta roles. Fernandinho has waned in the last couple of years and Rodri hasn’t been as influential. This has led to City’s defence being put under pressure and it has seen them lose more and more games in the last year and a half. It’s no coincidence. 

United are heavily rumoured to be on the brink of signing 19-year-old Ecuadorian, Moises Caicedo, who has already been capped by his country. The Daily Mail believe he is very keen on a move and whilst he would be raw, he might be the answer United are looking for and be the player who can truly unlock United’s midfield full potential. Whether it would be enough this season is hard to tell. However, a few years ago Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic were plucked from obscurity in January and suffered in their first few months in England. They didn’t do too badly now did they.

As for Vidic’s position, there is an argument to be made that we haven’t looked solid at the back since his and Rio Ferdinand’s dominant partnership ended. Last season, Harry Maguire became the most expensive defender in the world when he was signed for £80 million. Was he worth that? Probably not. Nevertheless, United desperately needed him. A season after conceding 54 goals, his arrival saw only 36 goals shipped in the league and the most clean sheets across Europe (in all competitions). Victor Lindelof has been the regular partner with Eric Bailly (infrequently) and Axel Tuanzebe (even more infrequently) making the odd appearance as well. Whenever United lose, Maguire and Lindelof often take a lot of criticism from United fans. Is it warranted? I’m unsure. There are times when the United defence can look a little frantic. There have been some horror shows. The 6-1 defeat to Tottenham (albeit a United side looking very low on fitness), the abysmal showing in Istanbul (who can forget the defending from when we had a corner!) and the poor first 30 minutes against RB Leipzig away. They have also shipped 23 goals in the league. 13 less than last season but with 23 games still to go you fancy it will be a lot more. 

However, when looking at some of the goals it’s hard to point the blame squarely at the centre backs. The issues with the defensive midfielders above will mean teams will be attacking United’s defence a lot more. There are times when they are left wide open because the midfield has been bypassed. If your midfield is stopping the attack before it makes it to the box, then you will obviously concede less. The stats above have shown that United’s midfield have been unable to do that. There have also been some question marks this season over David De Gea and Dean Henderson made a big mistake leading to a goal against Sheffield United, so the centre backs aren’t completely at fault, nor are they completely blameless. 

Corner kicks have been an Achilles heel this season. Maguire and Lindelof can also be caught out from crosses played in and around the six-yard box. So, what is the solution? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to be a big fan of Lindelof, but fans have clamoured for Tuanzebe to be given a run in the side. It seems that Maguire lacks a pacey partner next to him. Bailly has that pace but you never know when a rash moment will come from him. Flying through the air and taking Richarlison out against Everton, albeit assisted by a Fernandes nudge, highlights that. Taden Mengi has been a standout for the reserves and under 18’s but it’s very unlikely he’ll make that step up in the next year or two. 

Therefore if the answer is not currently in the squad, then it comes a question of who’s available elsewhere. I’ll keep it to two targets. David Alaba and Dayot Upamecano. Alaba is a free transfer and is seemingly a no brainer. However, with him wanting a new bumper wage at Bayern being the reason why they are letting him go, United may be reluctant to pay a player big wages after being stung with Alexis Sanchez, whether or not the player is a free transfer. Upamecano is reportedly available this summer for £36.5 million which seems like a steal for a player with a huge reputation at such a tender age. Pacey, strong and just 22 years old, he seems the perfect candidate, however, some rumours such as in the Daily Express, seem to suggest that United are not going in for either player. 

Where that leaves them, I’m not too sure. With Lindelof and Maguire as the first team pairing, you feel that certain strikers can and will exploit them. If no signings are on the horizon, then it might be time to pull the trigger on Tuanzebe. The potential is there, he might be able to form that partnership with Maguire that United have been looking for and that could give United that extra edge in keeping clean sheets.

If United were able to address these three issues, then it might be enough to secure a 21st league title. In what has been a crazy year around the world, the Premier League has not been immune from crazy results. Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool anyone? United probably shouldn’t be title challengers, but this year? Why not. 

Written by Huw Rawlings

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I support Manchester United, the greatest English football team to have ever existed. Bruno Fernandes is the latest in a long line of players with great ability to play for the club. I idolised Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Eric Cantona growing up.