Solskjaer still facing some unfinished business at United

Manager needs to further strengthen his squad if United are to become genuine title contenders

A mystery, a conundrum, a riddle, wrapped in the enigma of a third-place Premier League finish and three losing semi-finals: Manchester United at the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first full season as manager.

Yet, too, this is the United of the post-Alex Ferguson era. One characterisation of the 20-times English champions in the seven years since the Scot stepped away is that they have become too used to mediocrity – a team on terms too intimate with fourth place.

Having finished seventh under David Moyes in 2014, Louis van Gaal improved things slightly by ending up fourth and fifth before the high point of the second -place finish under José Mourinho in 2017-18.

Solskjær took over from the Portuguese midway through the next campaign as United ended up sixth but even this season’s third place means their average position in the table is just outside the top four.


Defeats in the semi-finals of League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League were also a worrying trend that Solskjaer will know he must address quickly.

But despite the progress made during the 19-match run that helped United secure third spot, he must try to avoid United becoming akin to Mourinho’s second season at Old Trafford – only with more smiles – or Van Gaal’s first season United – with less stodginess. The club’s recent history suggests it will not be easy.

On being sacked in December 2018 Mourinho repeated his favoured line about United’s previous campaign.

“I consider one of the best jobs of my career to finish second in the Premier League,” he said, before adding. “I keep saying this because people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.”

Mourinho may have been referring to the failure of Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, and his football brains-trust to sign Harry Maguire from Leicester in the summer of 2018 or Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic a year before. Clearer is what occurs in United’s financial department in the current window will again be a prime factor in whether Solskjær can move United on from third and all those semi-final defeats.

How he and the team may fare would provoke extended debate at the Oxford Union and is the Rubik’s Cube puzzle the Norwegian must grapple with in what is a truncated close season due to United’s campaign ending in the loss to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals – a year and a week after it began.

Serious money

On Sunday, the contradictions of United were illuminated yet again. The Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial strike force carry true menace but have a fatal propensity to spurn chances. They did so against Sevilla, as they did against FC Copenhagen in the quarter-finals, and as they did so on numerous other occasions this season.

Solskjær’s plan is all-out attack play. The quartet’s goal-return was 23 for Martial, 22 for Rashford, 17 for Greenwood and 11 for Fernandes. Seventy-three in all competitions is hardly shabby and so puts even more of the spotlight on a defence that ended the season in nose-dive fashion due to Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf’s pedestrian pace being exposed and some dodgy positioning by them and the full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams.

The obvious answer is to strengthen. But, here, the Jadon Sancho situation comes into play. The problem for Solskjær is the lack of serious money to purchase a centre-back or left-back of, say, Kalidou Khoulibaly or Ben Chillwell’s quality, should the circa €110m deal for the Borussia Dortmund forward go through.

The stance at United is that the financial drain caused by the coronavirus-induced lockdown means there is not much cash left after a marquee buy like Sancho, the corollary being that Solskjær has to somehow pull a Andy Robertson-priced bargain (cost €8.8m from Hull) from the hat when buying the defender he wants.

Despite this, a glance at rivals suggests he may still be the manager with the most generous budget. Across town, Pep Guardiola has moved to shore up his creaky Manchester City rearguard with the €45m buy of Nathan Ake, while also adding forward Ferran Torres for €27m – a total of €72m that may only be modestly increased by further signings.

At the champions, Jürgen Klopp has added a left-back, Konstantinos Tsimikas, for €9m, and while there could, too, be further investment this is likely to be low-end unless they can strike a deal with Bayern Munich for Thiago Alcântara.

Even for Chelsea, who were fourth, Frank Lampard’s €92m-splurge on centre-forward Timo Werner and winger s Hakim Ziyech looks to be about the limit, and thus not approaching United’s expected outlay.

There is, though, an unpalatable truth for Solskjær and United supporters: even a Sancho plus a centre-back will surely not elevate a squad into the rarefied air of Liverpool, whose 19th title followed becoming European champions in the previous season. A lack of depth of quality in most positions is the glaring problem as shown by Solskjær’s refusal to make any changes against Sevilla until three minutes from time.

Afterwards his take on recruitment was telling.

“It is not about marquee, we need quality, the right player, the right personality. We might look at it today and see where we need to improve.”

If this was a message to Woodward, whether he pulls off all that is required this window remains to be seen.

– Guardian