Maguire is not enough for United to succeed
Manchester United have dramatically improved their defensive options with the signings of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but there is still much to do to challenge for the top four.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be relieved that, if all goes to plan, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will only need to be on the pitch in a United shirt again if he decides to play football sarcastically. Now, instead, he has a pair of central defenders who on last season’s evidence at least, are capable of standing up for 90 minutes and occasionally even showing some defensive awareness.
That is essential. Smalling, Jones, Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly have demonstrated nothing beyond the fact that they can't be relied upon. Prone to mistakes, brainwrongs and injuries, aiming to keep a game tight was more a case of pointless optimism than a strategic attitude. Any team would fancy their chances when coming up against a defence staffed by players who were too often horizontal.
Adding Wan-Bissaka as well means that Antonio Valencia won't be missed. Valencia was no longer a useful member of the squad over the past two seasons. He offered as much on the pitch as he did off it: nothing. Another veteran, Ashley Young, might have been a hardworking player and one of the least irritating of the United squad, but he is so vulnerable to any kind of attention that he barely merited a squad number. In easy games he may be able to coast, but that is the most that should be asked of him in future.
Victor Lindelof showed an increasing calm on the pitch, but he was rarely demonstrative and can't be relied upon to help a younger partner along the way. Maguire knows what is required in the Premier League and on the international stage, and while he might not always deliver it, at least he deserves a chance to prove his worth. But they are the side’s only three decent defenders. That demonstrates just how poor the United squad remains.
Luke Shaw has been chided for his poor fitness and general discipline by three consecutive managers. He has come back much, much slimmer after a trip to America, so perhaps he has a new commitment to his career. That has been said before though, with little good effect. Another left-back will probably be needed in the winter if Shaw slips back off his fighting weight.
Ahead of him, Paul Pogba’s desire to leave has probably rendered him even more pointless than he was last season. His talent is not in doubt, but his willingness to do something with it for Manchester United is. Nemanja Matic appears to both be aged and jaded, so unless someone is brought in to do the running, it seems United will need both of Fred and Scott McTominay to come good. That is unlikely, and with the exit of Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, there is even less cover in times of injury.
Luke Shaw against BrightonReuters
Ahead of them, it is little better. Romelu Lukaku evidently played last season barely capable of sprinting, so the sooner he leaves the club, the better. Anthony Martial arrived sullen but sparkled nonetheless, but the last two seasons have been anything but gazeux. Jesse Lingard’s mindset is trapped in pubescence and seems it will be stuck there forever, never able to mature. Alexis Sanchez’s whole outlook on life remains an enigma, but crucially because he can't actually pass to his teammates, it is not a very interesting one.
That means that while Daniel James appears to offer what Solskjaer wants - pace, direct attacking play and confidence - it is not enough to bring United to life and challenge at the top of the table.
The same players remain at United, and they were the players who were either too unfit, too uninterested, or both, to complete the last 10 games of the season to a professional standard. Another forward is needed, as is another midfielder, but there is one more pressing issue to be addressed. As Alex Ferguson said to David Brailsford when asked about the secret to longevity: “Get rid of the *****”.