Manchester United put on another unconvincing display that demonstrated their weaknesses, and showed just where they need to act in this summer’s transfer window.
United, like most sides, elected to keep their powder dry in January as they prepared to keep things tight should the coronavirus pandemic continue well into the current year and hit the bottom line. The focus was on getting rid of players, and to that end, United can be satisfied. Marcos Rojo, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard and Odion Ighalo all offered nothing to the first team squad, and the moves clear out room for youngsters to get more experience with the first team. The loan of Facundo Pellistri to Alaves gives him time to develop in La Liga.
However, there is plenty to do to clear out the deadwood. Phil Jones is the obvious one who needs to be binned, but there are first team players who are now holding the side back. The problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ed Woodward is that you can make arguments that half the team should be in danger of replacement.
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The worst trouble is at the back. David de Gea has only a few months left to convince that he is not terminally afflicted by the yips, and is willing to combat his timidity. He poses perhaps an intractable problem, given his wages are north of £300,000 and his contract has years to run yet. There is no side that could afford his salary who are also stupid enough to buy him given his inconsistency and decline. A brilliant shot-stopper at his best, he has demonstrated he is only passably capable with the ball at his feet. That’s not necessarily a huge weakness, but it is on display every week at United.
That’s because while Harry Maguire is woefully bad on the ball, Victor Lindelof appears scared of it. The best teams can play triangles with their back three, whereas United look capable of imploding any time their trio decide to try keep-ball. Eric Bailly, a constant injury disappointment, might be a little better but is not fit enough to prove it consistently. To that end, United need a new goalkeeper and two new defenders, including at least one centre-back, move two of them out of the club, and instil a sense of focus and concentration that would stop them conceding witless early goals, as they did at West Brom and have done plenty of other times already this season.
While Bruno Fernandes remains a decisive and vital player even when not at the top of his game, it seems obvious that United will have to replace Paul Pogba. If they don’t they may also need to shift the disappointing Donny van de Beek on, if only for the sake of his career. Fred and Scott McTominay are an able pair in defensive midfield, but Nemanja Matic is now simply too old for the Premier League. Van de Beek was meant to be the player to tie it all together with his all-round ability, but is clearly suffering from the lack of trust afforded him by Solskjaer. He appeared to have the skills to do the job, but finding another player like that at such a reasonable price is probably beyond United’s substandard scouting department.
United’s midfield is the least worrying part of the team, a big change from previous years. While the lack of creativity on the flanks from Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles is worrying, the concern should be focused up front. Anthony Martial is running out time to prove that he can convert his potential into something useful. Marcus Rashford might soon have the same questions posed to him more pointedly, but his professionalism means he may be able to drag himself through this period, from a youngster into a senior member of the squad. Mason Greenwood’s second season has been deeply underwhelming, but it appears a mistake that he is being kept out of the side to give Martial and Rashford prominence.
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The signing of Edinson Cavani can be considered a success, but at 34 there is little guarantee his body won’t give way imminently, so every season he remains first choice at the club is a risk. In short, one could make a case that the club needs at least two senior forwards to join, and may be forced to sacrifice Martial to raise funds and make space. Jadon Sancho is an obvious replacement, but his form this year is much less thrilling, and a reduced £80 million price tag is still a gamble.
United seem on course for a second placed finish in the league, and there is creeping progress under Solskjaer, but they have been here before. They got back into the Champions League under Louis van Gaal and then failed to give him a central defender to replace either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones after initially promising him Sergio Ramos. Jose Mourinho took them to second and then was given Fred, Lee Grant and Diogo Dalot, in the world’s first sarcastic transfer strategy. Only through a last-minute trolly dash did they avoid disaster last summer, but the problems are mounting.
Conservatively, a new goalkeeper, two new defenders, a midfielder, a winger and a striker are needed. They need Woodward to identify and sign them promptly, or momentum will be lost yet again. The draw against West Brom was an indictment of their weaknesses, but it could get so much worse than that next season.