How Man United move on from European tears: Back Solskjaer with big summer signings, harness the power of shootout pain, offer Pogba a new deal… and make Old Trafford a fortress again!
- Manchester United’s season ended in tears after shootout loss to Villarreal
- They were just a couple of penalty kicks away from having a successful season
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must pick his players up and look to the new campaign
- Manager must be backed in the transfer market following a year of progress
- One marquee signing is needed plus reinforcements in four or five key areas
- Paul Pogba should be offered a new deal to reward his best season at United
- Distraction-free pre-season and right signings will see them hit ground running
In the end, Manchester United were just a couple of kicks away from being able to describe their season as successful.
A campaign that has pushed endurance levels to their limit culminated in 120 tense minutes and a marathon penalty shootout that lasted almost until midnight in Gdansk.
But they ended up second best to a Villarreal team who proved expert at keeping United’s myriad attacking threats at bay and were flawless in the shootout from No 1 to 11.
Manchester United’s Europa League ambitions ended in tears on Wednesday night in Gdansk, Poland, after they lost to Villarreal following a marathon penalty shootout
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was forced to walk past the Europa League trophy after coming within a couple of kicks of winning his first piece of silverware as Manchester United manager
The night may have ended in tears for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team but the season as a whole has seen improvement by United.
A third-placed finish in the Premier League and three losing semi-finals in 2019-20 has been followed by second place and a defeat in the Europa League final.
Solskjaer still hasn’t won a trophy at United but it does represent progress, of sorts.
The next steps United take will define whether the Norwegian can be a true success at Old Trafford.
Spend big on building a proper squad
There is no question that Solskjaer is taking United forward even if the booster-rocket of that first trophy continues to evade him after Wednesday night.
A club legend, he retains the widespread backing of the supporters and there is little desire to rip up two-and-a-half years of slow and steady improvement by bringing in another big-name manager.
After all, United were genuinely in the Premier League title race with Manchester City at the beginning of 2021 even if it ultimately proved a fleeting throwback to the glory years.
Having failed in four semi-finals under Solskjaer, overcoming that psychological hurdle to reach the Europa League final was a step forward. The next is obviously to win some silverware in the new season.
A deal for Borussia Dortmund and England star Jadon Sancho this summer looks achievable
Too often it falls to Bruno Fernandes to inspire United to victory – he needs some back-up
Solskjaer has talked about adding new layers to different parts of the United side, building and strengthening, moving forward step by step. Now he needs to be backed in that aim.
The Glazer family, United’s owners, must provide the funds to sign a number of players in the summer transfer market.
Solskjaer said United ‘need two or three players to strengthen the starting XI and the squad all together.’
That seems a modest estimate on the evidence of Wednesday night when it took him until the 100th minute to make a substitution despite it being United’s 61st match of a gruelling season.
It’s long been glaringly obvious that United have a strong first XI capable of beating any opponent when on their game but very little strength in depth beyond that.
The Glazer family, United’s owners, must reward the progress under Solskjaer (left) with money to spend in the summer transfer market. At least four new signings are required
United in 2019-20
Premier League – 3rd (33 points behind champions Liverpool)
FA Cup – Semi-finals
Carabao Cup – Semi-finals
Europa League – Semi-finals
United in 2020-21
Premier League – 2nd (12 points behind champions Man City)
FA Cup – Quarter-finals
Carabao Cup – Semi-finals
Champions League – Exit at group stage
Europa League – Finalists
They probably need one marquee signing and three other recruits to achieve the kind of reliable second string that Manchester City and Chelsea have, allowing them to compete effectively on multiple fronts.
Signing a player of the calibre of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho this summer – and all indications are the asking price may be lower than the £108million Ed Woodward balked at last year – would reduce the pressure on Bruno Fernandes to be the team’s talisman in every single game.
But bringing in a right-sided attacker is a low priority compared to the urgent need to sign a central defender to pair with captain Harry Maguire and a defensive-minded midfielder to shield what remains at times a vulnerable back line.
These are the two areas United’s football director John Murtough must prioritise in his first summer window in the role, with attacking players lower down the shopping list.
Harry Maguire (left) needs a higher calibre of central defensive partner than Victor Lindelof (centre), Eric Bailly or any of the other options currently at United
Edinson Cavani has been excellent – but his new deal may delay solving a big issue in attack
The feeling persists that Edinson Cavani’s one-year contract extension merely kicks the can down the road when it comes to signing a world class centre forward.
But with finances inevitably constrained by the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, getting a £120m-plus figure like Harry Kane as well as the other priorities all in the same summer is next to impossible.
That goes without mentioning the competition from City, Chelsea, Liverpool and others for players also targeted by United.
Those three title rivals will not be standing still this summer. They will buy players and bolster their squads.
They already have at least two good quality and reliable players in each position that can be rotated in and out amid a demanding schedule. United do not currently have this luxury.
The real danger is that United could fall years behind their rivals if they don’t back the progress Solskjaer has already made with smart investment this summer.
Tottenham’s Premier League Golden Boot winner Harry Kane will be on the market this summer but United will face stiff competitions from their rivals to sign him for £120m
Harness the pain of defeat
Sir Alex Ferguson wouldn’t have imagined presenting the winners’ medals in Gdansk to the team wearing yellow rather than the one in red.
Instead it was left to the legendary boss to console a line of United players with glistening eyes and tears streaming down their cheeks.
Solskjaer will have absorbed the tragedy of that moment and will emerge a better manager for the painful experience.
After the tactical post-mortem of his team’s under-powered performance, he will come to realise those emotions can be used as a powerful motivational tool for next season.
Fernandes was reduced to tears after Manchester United lost the Europa League final
Paul Pogba tried to console a visibly heartbroken Fernandes after the final whistle in Gdansk
Solskjaer has the luxury of a bit of time to continue the rebuilding job he has undertaken at United, though a poor opening to next season may put him on shaky ground.
United were woeful in the opening weeks of the current campaign but everything came together well from the turn of the year and they came agonisingly close to a first trophy in four years.
Ahead of next season, Solskjaer could do much worse than reminding his players of those moments standing there watching Villarreal’s celebrations on Wednesday night. Ask them how they felt, how horrible it was.
Cavani looked distraught as he came to terms with losing out in the showpiece on Wednesday
Marcus Rashford howled in frustration during the game (left) then looked disconsolate after
Ferguson used to walk around the dressing room during pre-season and gauge the hunger in the eyes of each player. That was when United knew how to win things.
It will fall to Solskjaer and senior pros like Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani, who know that wonderful feeling of success, to convey it to those in the squad who don’t.
United’s manager may learn a handful of tactical lessons from the failure to break down the massed ranks of Unai Emery’s well-organised team but the emotional and psychological lessons will be more valuable.
Ensure the big names are on board
Speculation over the future of United’s existing big names will inevitably follow this defeat even though they have Champions League football to look forward to next season.
Paul Pogba’s contract expires next year, for one, and his agent Mino Raiola has already been agitating that the French midfielder deserves a lucrative new deal or he’ll depart.
For once, Raiola may be bang on the money. Pogba has enjoyed his best season in a United shirt – after a sluggish start, he excelled in January and February before United dropped crucial points in their title push when he suffered a hamstring injury.
Pogba, who has been impressive for United this season, has just a year left on his deal
Pogba has also shown the dexterity to perform in central midfield as a No 6 or as a left-sided attacker, offering Solskjaer two good options.
Also, the prospect of a Real Madrid, Barcelona or PSG swooping for Pogba has receded amid the financial fall-out from the pandemic.
His performances this season have been those of a player who has made peace with this fact.
He trained on the eve of the final with a beaming smile, looks happier in a winning side and has a good understanding with Fernandes and others.
The French midfielder’s smile before the final spoke of a player finally settled at United
So it would certainly be in United’s interests to extend Pogba’s deal over the summer, offering him reassurances that he will remain central to their plans and that success will follow.
Knowing where his future lies should, in turn, inspire Pogba to produce more of the game-defining performances he is capable of.
Ensure a distraction-free pre-season
United have needed to draw deep on reserves of stamina after they had virtually no pre-season last summer as a consequence of the three-month Covid shutdown wrecking the football calendar.
Their 2019-20 season ended on August 16 with defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-final and 2020-21 began with a 3-1 home loss to Crystal Palace on September 16.
After the players had their summer holidays, there was only time for one pre-season friendly – against Aston Villa on September 12 – so it’s little wonder Solskjaer’s side collected just seven points from the first 18 available.
Pre-season preparations were also overshadowed by Maguire’s arrest following an altercation on the Greek island of Mykonos, which led to him being handed a suspended prison sentence of 21 months and 10 days. He has appealed against all his convictions.
Captain Maguire leaves court in Greece after his arrest in Mykonos last summer. He was handed a suspended sentence but the defender has appealed against all his convictions
It was clear Maguire’s head was distracted during those first few games of the season and it is to his immense credit that the captain put the incident behind him to become one of United’s most influential players.
They certainly missed his leadership in Wednesday’s final, where he was only fit enough to make the bench after an ankle injury, and being powerless to avert the agonising loss will have hurt him.
The shorter summer also resulted in an ill-thought-out transfer policy. After Dortmund refused to budge on their asking price for Sancho, a panic set in.
Donny van de Beek, signed from Ajax for £40m, looked a promising buy but turned out to be one midfielder too many and he has barely played in a miserable season.
Left back Alex Telles was brought in from Porto and succeeded in pushing Luke Shaw to up his game while putting in the odd decent performance himself.
Donny van de Beek was signed from Ajax last summer but has barely played for United
Youngsters Amad Dialllo and Facundo Pellistri are clearly long-term buys and the eleventh-hour arrival of Cavani, who’d been a free agent most of the summer, just looked like a desperate roll of the dice.
Fortunately, the gamble on Cavani has paid off for United but it easily could have gone the other way.
Meanwhile, the positions that should have been the priority, notably in central defence, went unaddressed.
Buying a striker well into his thirties went against Solskjaer’s established policy of prioritising talented and promising young players who can be developed but the decision has proved a good one. In the short-term at least.
Cavani has proved an outstanding signing for United despite initial doubts last summer
In an ideal world, United’s transfer business needs to be concluded earlier this time. Euro 2020 does complicate things but they must hit the ground running when the season starts in August.
Although some United players are likely to be involved deep into the tournament, which ends on July 11, and will desperately need a holiday afterwards, there will at least be time for a proper pre-season this year.
It’s unlikely all United’s transfer business will be done and dusted by the start of the Premier League on August 14 but a distraction-free summer will ensure they aren’t knocked out of title contention within the first few weeks.
Sort out their home form
There was such a marked contrast between United’s home and away form this season. They went unbeaten on the road, winning 12 and drawing seven of their 19 league games.
But at Old Trafford they lost six times and that ultimately proved the difference between themselves and champions City.
They were thrashed 6-1 by Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, edged out by Arsenal and somehow beaten by Sheffield United when in a good patch of form. Home defeats were also suffered to Palace, Leicester and Liverpool.
United will hope the gradual return of fans to Old Trafford will improve a sub-par home record
The 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Tottenham back in October was the low point of the season
The phased return of a 75,000-strong crowd will of course help United. Energy and encouragement does transmit from the stands to tiring legs on the pitch.
You feel in some games that a roar from the Old Trafford crowd would have inspired one final, telling effort from their team.
It’s the same for everyone, of course, but United particularly need to improve on their own patch next season to get close to the title.
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