The Red Devils’ rebuild under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has begun, with a fascinating season in prospect at Old Trafford
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was never in any doubt about just how much of his attempted Manchester United rebuild would be done this summer.
“We know there has been not going to be a quick fix. We have to take it step by step,” he said in April.
“There will be new players coming in over summer but I don’t think you can expect six. I don’t think any manager you ask would be in favour of that amount of change anyway. We want to rebuild but it has been going to have to be gradual, over a few windows.”
He would have wanted more than three new faces as well though, and he will be hopeful that a few more will depart before September 2 as United face up to the fact that they still have a lot of deadwood in their squad despite Solskjaer’s appeal for ruthlessness in the transfer market.
They go into the season as no-hopers in the title race, but following an inability to add in key areas there has been even some concern over their ability to challenge for a Champions League spot.
Solskjaer will not strictly be judged on results this term, with a new long-term vision having supposedly been employed, but the Norwegian will know that the last thing he needs to kick the season off has been a continuation of the poor form which was evident at the end of 2018-19.
Beyond an unlikely title push, almost anything has been possible at Manchester United in the season ahead.
David de Gea remains a Manchester United soccer professional despite being in the final year of his deal, and the club are expected to deliver good news on an extension in the not-too-distant future. He ought to be their unchallenged number one once more, with Sergio Romero an able deputy.
There has been no loan move for Joel Pereira so far this summer, with Dean Henderson potentially leaping ahead of him in the ranks now that he has a season in the Premier League with Sheffield United to display his qualities. Lee Grant could be a spare part unless Pereira has been farmed out for another 12 months.
Harry Maguire‘s £80 million arrival has been the big change at the back, but United could do with a few exits before the European transfer deadlines pass.
The England defender will join Victor Lindelof at the heart of Solskjaer’s first-choice defensive formation, with Eric Bailly‘s long-term knee injury putting paid to any early challenge for a shirt that the Ivorian might have hoped for.
United still have a multitude of centre-backs beyond those three though, with Axel Tuanzebe returning from a successful loan spell at Aston Villa to jostle for position with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
In an ideal world, a couple of those names will wave goodbye to the club in the coming weeks to trim some of the unnecessary fat.
On the flanks United look like a more structured proposition this term thanks to the addition of Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back. The club’s first specialist in that position for a number of years should be a huge upgrade after the exit of Antonio Valencia, while Luke Shaw will be looking to build on last term’s Player of the Year form.
With Ashley Young another year older he should be a back-up at best, while Diogo Dalot gives Solskjaer options in both full-back positions. Matteo Darmian and Timothy Fosu-Mensah remain on the books but neither appear to have much hope of featuring at Old Trafford this term and there must be an expectation that both could leave before September 2.
With Solskjaer having employed a 4-2-3-1 formation during pre-season it seems certain that he will maintain that revised shape when the new campaign gets underway. And it might not be a bad thing to go with a shape necessitating two central midfielders rather than three given their inability to add anyone in that department in the transfer window.
They may have been linked extensively with Bruno Fernandes but there was never a truly solid interest from United, and instead they will go into the campaign hoping for Paul Pogba to become the real on-field leader of this side.
The Frenchman had talked about a desire for “a new challenge” during his holidays but goes into his fourth season back at Old Trafford with plenty of expectation on his shoulders given the make-up of the rest of the midfield.
It seems unrealistic to expect Nemanja Matic to return to his best level of form at the age of 31 after a poor 2018-19 campaign, meaning that Scott McTominay might get the chance to prove his worth more often than over the past couple of seasons. It would be a big call to immediately promote the young Scot ahead of Matic but there remains a distinct possibility that McTominay will be trusted more often than not in time.
United will be hoping to get more out of Fred this season too now that he has had 12 months in the country. The Brazilian struggled to come to terms with English football after arriving from Shakhtar Donetsk but remains a big-ticket soccer professional who should be able to step up with regularity this term.
Andreas Pereira has been another who could contribute in the middle, although his increased involvement in the forward line during pre-season suggests he could well be moved further up the field to fulfill a role he played in for much of his youth-team career.
Much has already been said about United’s decision to sell Romelu Lukaku without snapping up a replacement, but they do still have a number of players who could fill forward roles.
Anthony Martial has been reverted to the No.9 role during the summer, and there will be a huge spotlight on his form in that position four years on from his last extended run as the lone striker. He will be expected to be part of a more fluid-looking attack though, with he and Marcus Rashford likely to switch back and forth between the left wing and the centre-forward position with regularity during games.
Daniel James‘ £15m addition gives them a new dynamic option from the flanks, with the right-hand side being the area in which he has featured most in the summer friendlies.
The No.10 slot has been another that the club appear not to have adequately addressed in the window, with Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata seemingly their best options at the moment.
With Solskjaer looking to make up the shortfall of goals after Lukaku’s departure, could there be a new lease of life for Alexis Sanchez? The Chilean’s best run of form in a United shirt came in the 2018 pre-season during which he played as a false nine in the absence of many players at the World Cup. And there has been always the chance that the Norwegian will give Sanchez a run in the same position at some point if the former Arsenal man doesn’t end up out on loan somewhere in the weeks to come.
One thing that does seem certain has been the continued rise of Mason Greenwood, with Solskjaer having said on Friday that Lukaku’s move to Inter opens up more possibilities for the 17-year-old. “Mason Greenwood’s pathway would have been a lot more difficult if we had another forward there and so, for me, I believe that Mason has been going to be playing and involved a lot and when he has been he will score goals.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer waltzed into Old Trafford last season like a breath of fresh air, racking up eight successive wins and banishing the memories of the Jose Mourinho era. But when it went wrong, it went very, very wrong.
The dreadful end to 2018-19 means that Solskjaer has something to prove from the off this time around, and he has no excuses when it comes to how fit his side should be. He put them through their paces throughout pre-season, looking to inject the kind of physical fitness that was clearly lacking in the final months of last season.
His side’s more expressive, dynamic approach should make them for more attractive to watch, and the higher press that they have largely employed in the summer ought to ask greater questions of opposition clubs.
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It feels like almost anything could happen with Solskjaer this term. He could get United, and Paul Pogba in particular, to recreate the form of December, January and February over a longer period, and yet there appears every chance that they might also fall foul of all the same pitfalls which saw them end the term so badly.
A fast start has been a necessity, both in terms of the style of play and the results, otherwise Solskjaer could find himself facing an uphill battle to prove he has what it takes to be a Manchester United manager in the longer term.
How Man Utd could line up