ManUtd not so magnificent after all

United have finally broken into the Champions League places. After a bleak 1-1 draw at home against West Ham United, they leapfrogged both Chelsea and Leicester City this game week – both teams lost – to make it to third position. Solskjaer’s men now have their Champions League qualification in their own hands. Avoid defeat at Leicester on Sunday and they will be in next season’s top European tournament. This is what United have been chasing for months now.

Judging by their recent performances, Sunday’s game against Leicester will be anything but easy for United. The team has struggled recently and their 19-game unbeaten run was terminated at the weekend by Chelsea, following two mistakes by goalkeeper De Gea, reminding United fans of a similar string of errors last year which cost them a Champions League berth. If De Gea and the others are not at their best on Sunday, United might end up in the Europa League again, which will have drastic effects on revenue and player recruitment.

Following Bruno Fernandes’ signing in January, United looked like a completely new side. After the Coronavirus-induced Premier League pause, United got Rashford and Pogba back and things seemed rosy again at Old Trafford. With a fully fit squad, United can field a scary first eleven. Therein lies their strength and weakness as well. While the first eleven or even thirteen players are good enough, there is an intrinsic lack of quality in the rest of the squad. For example, today when United needed a win and the players looked stricken by fatigue, the coach could not turn to the bench to make offensive changes.

In this scenario, the only possibility is that the starting eleven will be played again and again until fatigue settles in. That is what United have been suffering from in the past five games at least. They were able to get away with it against weaker opposition like Aston Villa and Palace but West Ham and Southampton are better organized teams with some really good players and the Chelsea game was done as soon as De Gea made his second mistake of the game right after the break. Now United are about to play a “final” for a Champions League spot with a tired team which is lacking confidence.

Things are not so bad for United though. They still hold an advantage over Leicester in that a draw would be enough for them. Plus Leicester is in a worse patch of form. On a more global picture perspective, United are one game away from achieving one of their season’s goals. After that, they are still in the Europa League, with a massive chance of winning the competition for the second time in four years.

If there is something to learn from the past five games, it is that the squad depth and quality needs to be improved for the club to even begin challenging for the title. Unused players on big salaries like Lingard, Pereira, Mata, Jones, Smalling, Rojo and Sanchez have to be offloaded permanently to make way for better squad players and more academy graduates. United need a transfer window at least as good as last year’s to be in a good shape come next season, which is sooner than we might think.

A star player like Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho would bolster the offensive line and improve morale at Old Trafford but cheaper, reliable squad players will also be key to success. Fred and Scott Mctominay are good understudies. The latter is still young and just had an injury ravaged season. He will surely learn from and replace Nemanja Matic in the long term. Young prospects like Fosu Mensah and Tuanzebe can also provide squad depth in defence, alongside Eric Bailly. The positions in which United lack options from bench are at the front. The underwhelming Daniel James might be better in his second season and maybe Tahith Chong will be given a chance to impress.

Still, United would be wise to invest in players like Villa’s Grealish, Norwich’s Cantwell or Lyon’s Moussa Dembele. A player like Theo Hernandez from AC Milan would also give Ole more competition in defence. Declan Rice, James Maddison, Raul Jimenez, Jovane Cabral – these are all names that have been linked with United and would be apt replacements for the United squad’s dead wood.

Last but not least, it might be high time United brought back Dean Henderson from Sheffield United to provide competition for De Gea. Either the Spaniard will return to his world class form spurred on by a young, hungry goalkeeper or Henderson will make the number one spot his own. It’s a win-win situation for the club.

United are on the right track under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. To really challenge for top honours, they now need to improve an already good squad into a team of world beaters like Manchester City and Liverpool.

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