LONDON • A 13-game unbeaten run to finish last season in third place is unlikely to be the launchpad for a genuine Premier League title challenge this soon, but there are real signs Manchester United can entrench themselves in the top four.
Since their last championship win in 2013, the Red Devils have never finished in the Champions League places in successive terms.
However, there is a feeling around Old Trafford that despite a third straight year without silverware, the team can kick on off the back of that second-half streak.
The club’s hierarchy have thrown their weight behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since his permanent appointment in March of last year, backing him in the transfer market to leave no doubt his position is secure.
Yet if United are to end their title drought, the Norwegian has admitted they need to spend more to catch up with the two most likely contenders, champions Liverpool and Manchester City.
Solskjaer said: “We’re still not where we want to be, close enough to challenge for the Premier League trophy but we take one step at a time. Obviously City and Liverpool the last couple of seasons have put the standard where it should be to win the league… let’s see how much we can invest for next season.”
United have already brought in Donny van de Beek from Ajax for £40 million (S$71 million) and while there is an obvious jump in quality from the Eredivisie to the Premier League, the 23-year-old should add guile and tenacity to their midfield once he settles in.
With 10 strikes overall last season, the Dutch international scored three more than Nemanja Matic, Fred and Scott McTominay combined and is expected to form a new deep-lying partnership with one of them.
Former United midfielder Darren Fletcher already likes what he saw, hailing van de Beek’s flexibility – he can also play as a No. 10 or box-to-box midfielder – and calling him a “top-class player”.
His goals and quality will add depth to United’s squad, which is not short of firepower.
We’re still not where we want to be, close enough to challenge for the Premier League trophy.
OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER.
- MAN UNITED TRANSFERS IN
• Donny van de Beek (Ajax, £40 million, S$71 million)
• Alexis Sanchez (Inter Milan, free)
Bruno Fernandes has had a transformative effect since his January move from Sporting Lisbon, scoring 12 times in 22 outings, while Paul Pogba appears to be over the injury problems that limited him to just eight games before March.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both enjoyed career-best campaigns in front of goal and youngster Mason Greenwood completes an attacking trio who are the envy of most teams.
The potential blockbuster signing of Jadon Sancho will only add to the embarrassment of riches up front, though, there remains a suspicion the squad is top-heavy.
The defence has not been convincing even before Solskjaer’s arrival, and the presence of Harry Maguire, the world’s most expensive defender at £80 million, has not changed that outlook.
While United had the third-stingiest backline last term, conceding 36 goals to Liverpool’s 33, there were moments that suggested Maguire’s partnership with Victor Lindelof, while functional, would struggle to reach the standards set by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
It is something former United striker Dimitar Berbatov has also identified, calling on Solskjaer to “find someone who can accommodate Harry”.
The last line of defence is another worry with David de Gea increasingly shaky. Since 2018, the Spaniard has made seven errors leading to a direct goal, with only Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Newcastle’s Martin Dubravka worse (eight) in the league.
Solskjaer rewarding Dean Henderson with a bumper long-term contract following his loan spell at Sheffield United, however, is an indication that any further drop in standards will result in a new No. 1.
With the transfer window closing only on Oct 5, United have time to get a couple more new faces to show their intent in challenging for the biggest honours again.