We all know transfer deadline day has the ability to raise football fans’ expectations – not to mention temperatures – to dangerously high levels. But the total meltdown of Manchester United fans which greeted the summer window closing was more scalding than the inside of an active volcano.
Red Devils supporters’ tempers were left at boiling point due to their club’s inactivity on the final day, spewing Twitter barbs in the direction of Ed Woodward, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, anyone in fact who cared to listen; like balls of molten hot lava erupting from Mount Vesuvius.
Unhappy? Fair enough. Many fans are after the deadline passes. Despite some excellent business completed by Solskjaer and Co, the majority of United followers would ideally have wanted a midfielder to be added to the squad this summer – particularly considering Ander Herrera’s unpopular exit.
But the heat fans directed Woodward’s way was, frankly, obscene.
This article is by no means a shield under which the United executive vice chairman will find shelter from the heat. Far from it. The fact an accountant and investment banker is heading up football player recruitment at one of the biggest football clubs in the world is shambolic. And yet, it’s also been one of the more astute and sensible summers overseen by the 47-year-old.
Have United fans forgot how porous their defence was last year? Fifty four goals conceded in 38 games – embarrassingly much more than double the tally of champions Manchester City (23) and runners-up Liverpool (22). And more than all of the five teams that finished above them; Chelsea and Tottenham (39), Arsenal (51).
It resulted in a goal difference of only +11. Arsenal were closest with +22, while Liverpool (+67) and City (+72) were mere specs on the horizon. More worrying was the fact five teams who finished below the Red Devils in the table shipped fewer goals – Wolves, Everton (both 46), Leicester, Newcastle (both 48) and Crystal Palace (53); the latter two clubs finished 12th and 13th.
Two seasons ago, United may have finished a distant 19 points adrift of City in second place – the largest ever gap between champions and runners-up in the Premier League era – but Jose Mourinho’s miserly defence conceded just 28 goals. Almost half the amount of 2018/19.
To put it into context the 54 goals allowed last season was the most the club had conceded in a Premier League season, by some distance too. The previous highest was 45, in both 2000/01 when they finished third and 1999/00 – at least they had the treble to comfort them that year.
You have to go back to 1978/79 for last season’s defensive disaster to be surpassed, when 63 goals were conceded.
So, heading into this summer the priority was clear – defence. It’s been clear for some years.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka – he of the third most tackles in Europe’s top five leagues last season – was brought in from Crystal Palace. You’ll remember they conceded less goals than United last season as well. Harry Maguire was acquired with a similarly hefty sum from Leicester. You’ll remember they conceded less goals than United last season, too.
All of a sudden United’s leaky back line has been plugged with the addition of two quality players.
A back five of David De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw now looks formidable. United even have a legitimate claim to possess possibly the best defence in the league.
Whether that’s true or not is up for debate. But United at least head into the new season with their defence now looking shipshape rather than the shipwreck it resembled last term.
Daniel James is the third United arrival. Not as heralded as either of his defensive comrades. Nowhere near as expensive either. But he is a bright prospect and will compliment United’s new-look attack. Solskjaer wants to play with pace and energy. He wants to press and be fluid and James is a good fit, as evidenced in pre-season, where he and United impressed.
Of course it is not perfect. United have not been perfect for a long time. Issues remain, most pressingly in midfield where quality is lacking. But, again, effort and energy is not. Here United impressed again, with Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira among the Red Devils’ summer standouts. And, of course, they do still possess Paul Pogba.
United fans were convinced Bruno Fernandes was going to arrive from Sporting Lisbon. Portuguese media fuelled talk of a potential deal all summer. And yet, the flames were actually never fanned. It is thought Fernandes was only ever of superficial interest to the club and never a serious target.
Other chatter suggests the 24-year-old would only have been pursued had United profited handsomely from the sale of Pogba.
United fans – and critics – were so determined to taint and taunt United’s perceived paltry summer haul that they claimed Marouane Fellaini had not been replaced. An excuse almost as funny as the court jester-type figure of fun the frizzy-haired Belgian played while donning the red jersey.
There are other fears too. For all his technical faults, Romelu Lukaku was a gluttonous goalscorer during his two seasons at United. Forty two scored in 96 games for the Red Devils is ravenous form. Too bad not enough were scored against premier opposition or on the biggest stages.
What a week, dreams do come true ❤️ pic.twitter.com/fdSUzogjVe— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) August 9, 2019
The biggest fear here is Solskjaer spreading himself thin in the striking department with only 17-year-old protege Mason Greenwood and an anemic Alexis Sanchez able to cover Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
But Greenwood is a prodigious talent and Solskjaer and many at the club have faith he can play a significant role this season.
In addition, the squad is bloated. A pile of unwanted driftwood has been allowed to build. United have 13 defenders on their books – Leeds United had only three more total players in their traveling squad to Australia that played the Red Devils in a pre-season friendly in Perth last month.
Marcos Rojo looks horribly out of place in any United XI and Matteo Darmian, while unfortunate, has ultimately proved not up to standard.
So, burning issues remain. But fans shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Old Trafford is on fire. The only thing red-hot should be the excitement heading into the new campaign. The only thing fans need to fuel is their belief.
They constantly operate in the spotlight, but Manchester United’s manager, players and hierarchy will have felt the heat this summer after one of their most disappointing seasons in the Premier League era.
A turgid sixth-placed finish damaged what had threatened to be a transformative transition from Jose Mourinho to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But after the initial three-month honeymoon period it was clear there was trouble in paradise with players’ fitness and attitudes in question.
A big summer loomed for Solskajer as relationships needed fixing or ending. Judging by pristine performances and results in pre-season – United won all six of their games and looked sharp – they head into 2019/20 having healed wounds.
Even if transfer deadline day passed amid a backdrop of uproar among fans – at least the Twitteratti variety – United have addressed their shaky defence, with Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka providing instant upgrades at centre and right-back. Even if this means they now possess 13 defenders – three fewer than the total number of players in the Leeds squad that faced United in a pre-season game in Perth on July 17.
Solskjaer seems happy with the attitude and make-up of his squad, but just how will they line up in their opener at Old Trafford on Sunday against Europa League champions and another side who’ll be chasing a top-four place this season, Chelsea, and beyond?
We take a look at how a new-look United may approach the new season from a formation and tactics standpoint.
OPTION A | 4-2-3-1 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MCTOMINAY, POGBA; JAMES, LINGARD, MARTIAL; RASHFORD
United are clearly going to be far fitter this season with Solskjaer a fan of the high press favoured by Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona. From the evidence of pre-season it has been successfully implemented, with an energetic and hard-working United front six buying into their manager’s new methods.
Aside from his poor technique, close control and cumbersome movement, old fashioned target man Romelu Lukaku was a dreadful fit for this type of football.
But Daniel James is perfect. The Welsh lad is fast and a big threat going forward, though, in pre-season United fans will have also noticed a player who is focused and fastidious defensively too.
And while a player who only broke out season last term in the Championship may seem ill-suited to start for one of the Premier League’s biggest teams, the 21-year-old former Swansea wideman is someone who will grow into the campaign.
In Solskjaer’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up, a front four combined of James, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial is a frightening prospect for any defence – particularly if the quartet can provide the same fluidity displayed in pre-season.
United have struggled badly on the right side of their attack. James has slotted in seamlessly this summer and Mason Greenwood has also caught the eye out there too.
If Lingard, Greenwood, Angel Gomes or Tahith Chong come into the line-up, they are all similar players so little changes. Even if the more static Juan Mata comes into the reckoning, his deployment as the No10 in pre-season does little to alter the structure of how Solskjaer will set his team up.
For all the hard work put in and heights hit by their attack over the last six weeks, you’d be hard pressed to find a more impressive United performer this summer than Scott McTominay. A United future looked far away when he was brought in by Jose Mourinho three seasons ago, but the Scot has steadily grown in stature – compiling 23 and 22 appearances respectively in the last two campaigns.
Now, it is clear his athleticism, energy and work ethic are traits that have been noticed by Solskjaer. The 22-year-old could be the perfect foil for Paul Pogba in the midfield two.
OPTION B| 4-3-3 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MCTOMINAY, MATIC, POGBA; LINGARD, RASHFORD, MARTIAL
The 4-3-3 could mostly be deployed in the Europa League, although expect Solskjaer to also utilise it away from home against hosts more likely to play expansive games.
The key to Solskjaer’s way of playing is speed, energy and free-flowing movement. This was evident during his time in charge last season…well, certainly in the early days of his interim reign anyway.
And it’s been a feature of pre-season, the manager entering the new campaign with the added bonus of having had the whole summer to work with the players, fully implement his own ideas and create a new identity.
United have looked fit, sharp and incisive. The high-press has been organised with the team working tirelessly as a cohesive unit.
James and Greenwood entered the fray and excited, however, Solskjaer will realistically begin the season with more established stars. But unlike previous regimes, Lingard and Martial will not likely earn starting roles based on reputation or squad stature, but rather through the desire and determination on display.
No two players arguably have more to prove. Fans are still waiting for Martial to fulfil his potential as he approaches his fifth season, while many question Lingard’s validity as a United player, especially after he reportedly received a dressing down following his summer excursions away from the club.
Both were impressive upon returning. Lingard was said to have topped the charts in almost all the fitness tests while after a poor performance against Perth Glory, Martial improved.
With Lukaku gone, Martial should feel he has more of a role. Whether that’s on his favoured left wing or dovetailing with Rashford in the central striker role, he has a huge part to play. And maybe that feeling of worth and trust from Solskjaer will finally coax him out of his cocoon of comfort.
The Norwegian has navigated his way through the transfer market by using heart, hard work and a sense of feeling like Old Trafford is home as his moral compass. Moves were mooted for Paulo Dybala and Christian Eriksen but neither had their hearts set on Manchester and so pursuits were dropped.
Given a string of superstar signings have failed, Solskjaer only wants players who want to be at the club – and the trio of arrivals highlight that; home-grown, hungry and with high ceilings.
It is a refreshing new attitude the whole squad seem to have embraced.
OPTION C| 4-2-3-1 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MATIC, POGBA; GREENWOOD, MATA, RASHFORD; MARTIAL
The back five – barring injury, rotation or poor form – is likely to remain the same all season. It’s ahead of them where the options will overlap for Solskjaer.
In the second 4-2-3-1 option, we’re giving exciting youngster Greenwood a go in the attacking three, of which Martial is the spearhead.
Hopes are high for the young academy starlet. Part of the reasoning for not aggressively pursuing a replacement for Lukaku is that Greenwood’s rapid ascension has been hallmarked by a poise well beyond his age.
He is young and raw, but Solskjaer also feels the 17-year=old is ready for a significant role this season. After 30 goals in 29 games at various age grades last season, Greenwood performed gloriously on the pre-season tour – he was joint top scorer behind Rashford with two goals.
One of them was a calm, thunderous winner against Inter while he also stepped up to nervelessly convert in the penalty shootout victory over the other Milan side, AC.
He should be overawed but nothing seems to faze him, and that is a valuable commodity.
Elsewhere, in the formation there is a place for Mata who impressed in pre-season and featured in his favoured, and most effective, No10 role. United have an embarrassment of wide attacking riches.
The Spaniard is a valuable squad player and experienced head who can help nurture the young players. His playing time won’t be plentiful but hopefully when we do see him, the veteran won’t be wastefully deployed out wide.
Behind them, another age issue rears its head – this time in a more troublesome way – with Nemanja Matic. Fans will rightly be concerned over the Serb stalwart’s form heading into the new season after a summer in which he looked ponderous and pedestrian.
He’s a wonderful professional and his leadership qualities in a team lacking leaders remain invaluable, but his engine – in an area lacking attention this summer – is not running as smoothly as it once was.
With Paul Pogba providing the thrust, Matic will be relied on to cut off opposition attacks, but the overriding belief is that he will be phased out by McTominay.
Paul Pogba is fit to start Manchester United’s Premier League opener against Chelsea.
The midfielder missed the final pre-season game against AC Milan due to a back spasm, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed he is fit for Sunday.
Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James could make their debuts, while 17-year-old Mason Greenwood is set to be named in the squad. Eric Bailly and Tim Fosu-Mensah are both injured, while Alexis Sanchez may not be involved after picking up a hamstring issue towards the end of the Copa America.
Chelsea boss Frank Lampard will make a late decision on N’Golo Kante before the game at Old Trafford.
France midfielder Kante hopes to return following a knee injury, while forward Willian and defender Antonio Rudiger (both knee) also face fitness tests but are unlikely to feature.
United States winger Christian Pulisic could make his Blues debut following his £58million move from Borussia Dortmund, but England duo Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi (both Achilles) will be unavailable.
Man Utd provisional squad: De Gea, Romero, Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Young, Jones, Maguire, Lindelof, Rojo, Smalling, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Darmian, Chong, Garner, Gomes, James, Fred, Lingard, Matic, Mata, McTominay, Pereira, Pogba, Greenwood, Lukaku, Martial, Rashford
Chelsea provisional squad: Arrizabalaga, Caballero, Azpilicueta, Zappacosta, Rudiger, Tomori, Christensen, Zouma, Alonso, Palmieri, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Kovacic, Mount, Kenedy, Pedro, Willian, Pulisic, Giroud, Abraham, Batshuayi.