With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Manchester United and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.
An old adage goes by the saying, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” In the Premier League era, this expression suits Manchester United perfectly, more so than any other big-name outfit in the country.
A club that was on the rise ahead of the maiden Premier League season in 1992, the Red Devils would go on to become a behemoth of English football, enjoying unprecedented success under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson. The first couple of decades of the Premier League era were, in fact, thoroughly dominated by Manchester United.
To illustrate their supremacy in this period, United won an astonishing 13 league titles, never once finishing outside the top four till the legendary Scotsman called it a day. Manchester United also enjoyed heaps of success in every other competition, but it was their mastery in the Premier League that trumped everything else.
However, in their first season in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson period, reality hit them hard; reality hit them rapidly. David Moyes, the man who was hand-picked by his compatriot to lead Manchester United into the new era, failed to carry on the momentum, as the Red Devils went on a free fall in the top half of the Premier League table, breaking many an unwanted record, before finishing 7th.
Moyes did not even last a full season in the managerial hotseat at Old Trafford. Manchester United have subsequently gone on to appoint legendary managers in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. But neither managed to deliver success in the Premier League, with United coming the closest under Mourinho in 2017/18, when they finished 2nd behind neighbours Manchester City.
However, Mourinho’s time at the club came and passed too, although United did enjoy mild success under him. Presently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s youth revolution is in the advent at Old Trafford and after a difficult end to the 2018/19 campaign the 2019/20 season showed their potential.
Last term, Manchester United finished in the top four and reached the semi-finals of every cup competition, and something special might be on the cards in the coming season. Let us first take a look back at how the Red Devils fared last time out before indulging in an in-depth analysis of what beckons Solskjaer & co. in the 2020/21 Premier League season.
Prelude – The Backdrop
2019/20 was a season of two halves for Manchester United; one in which a young side struggled to find a semblance of consistency as injuries to key player plundered the squad; the other in which an identity started forming around Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & co. as a full strength squad took the Premier League by storm.
The season started with a staggering 4-0 win over Chelsea, as a stunning second half showing saw Manchester United lay waste to their rivals. However, Solskjaer’s men were almost immediately on the downslide subsequently, winning just two of their following ten games to drop down to 10th spot on the Premier League table – the were briefly as low as 14th.
As November began, the Red Devils slowly started to find their feet while still having the odd stinker of a performance in them. But, this is when Marcus Rashford started taking on more and more responsibility, delivering the goods on a consistent basis. As 2019 ended, Manchester United had lost just one of their nine fixtures.
The turn of the year also signalled another turn in form, albeit only fleetingly so, as they lost three of their four games in January to once again see their top hour hopes being dented. However, then came Bruno Fernandes and Manchester United have not looked back since, at least in the Premier League.
Since the start of February, Manchester United have not lost a single league game, with Fernandes being involved very heavily in their success during this period to guide Solskjaer & co. back to the UEFA Champions League. Fourteen games, nine wins. Two of those victories came against Chelsea and Manchester City, as the Red Devils did the league double over both clubs.
In the process, Solskjaer also became only the second ever manager to beat Pep Guardiola three times in a season, having also beaten Manchester City in the Carabao Cup in January. Another big indication of the momentum that Manchester United built at the tail end of last season comes from the fact that since the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, no team has raked in more points than them.
As iterated earlier, the Red Devils also went deep into every cup competition, reaching the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Europa League before faltering at the penultimate stage. However, with the team starting to gel together and become a tight-knit unit, Manchester United could be in for a strong 2020/21 campaign, particularly in the Premier League.
Much of this summer’s transfer window has been dominated by speculation surrounding Jadon Sancho and a potential switch to Old Trafford. However, talks between Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund have become a long drawn out affair, with the two clubs at an impasse over the transfer fee while personal terms do not appear to be a problem.
Indeed, it is Dortmund’s reluctance to drop their asking price which seems to be holding up the transfer. What happens with that saga remains to be seen, although signing Sancho has to arguably be imperative for Manchester United. As for the business that has actually been completed by the Red Devils, it has been slow work so far.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) September 10, 2020
Donny van de Beek is the only player who has been signed by United so far this summer, although his acquisition is one that ought to hold them in good stead, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s midfield options bolstered considerably. The other major “arrival” in the Manchester United squad has been in the form of Dean Henderson.
The English goalkeeper has been extremely impressive during his time away from the club on loan, first at Shrewsbury Town before spending the last two seasons at Sheffield United. It is at Bramall Lane where Henderson finally started to show why he is rated quite highly at United, winning the Blades’ Young Player of the Year award in both the seasons.
Henderson now looks set to carve his own place in the Manchester United squad, having signalled his intention to challenge David de Gea for the no. 1 goalkeeping slot at Old Trafford. Otherwise, it looks like Manchester United are leaving it late to get their summer dealings wrapped up, with a move for Sancho impending and a left-back also on their radar, as per reports.
Meanwhile, removing deadwood efficiently has been one of Solskjaer’s strong suits so far as the Manchester United manager. The Norwegian has been cleaning up his squad smartly this summer as well, although there are a few bit-part players who seem to be commanding little interest from suitors.
Nevertheless, the Red Devils have managed to offload a couple of players, with Alexis Sanchez’s tumultuous time at the club finally coming to an end with a permanent transfer to Inter Milan. The only other sale has seen Cameron Borthwick-Jackson joining Oldham Athletic on a free transfer.
Other notable departures from Old Trafford have been temporary, with Tahith Chong and Joel Pereira joining Werder Bremen and Huddersfield Town, respectively, on loan. With just under a month left for the transfer window to slam shut, it will be interesting to see who else leaves United; Chris Smalling’s return to AS Roma appears to be a given, though.
2020/21 is already set to be a cramped season, with fixtures coming thick and fast. With their hands already full, Manchester United will potentially have an additional midweek fixture to worry about. The Red Devils will still be playing 38 Premier League games like every other club.
However, they will not be in action in the opening weekend of the season, seeing as they have been given additional time off following their excursions deep into the UEFA Europa League last term. As a result, United’s first game of the season will be against Crystal Palace at home.
Need a reminder of our 2020/21 #PL fixtures?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 20, 2020
September ends with an away fixture at Brighton & Hove Albion, meaning they have a great chance to head into a tricky second month of the season with a maximum haul of six points to get their Premier League campaign up and running.
As for October, Manchester United have Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal to face in the month, with a usually dicey away day game against Newcastle United also upon them in Gameweek 5. With each of the matches against fellow ‘Big Six’ opponents at home, Solskjaer & co. will fancy their chances to set up an early top four charge.
Going to the end of the 2020, Manchester United have just one more ‘Big Six’ opponents in local rivals Manchester City, again at Old Trafford. Judging by his record against Pep Guardiola, Solskjaer will be optimistic of his team’s prospects heading towards the turn of the year. A strong start to the season might well pave the way for a potential title tilt, building momentum for what could be a hairy second half of the campaign.
January will have its fair share of challenges, with Liverpool and Arsenal being the ‘Big Six’ rivals that United will have up against them. Both these fixtures will be on the road and so, the Red Devils will need to bank on their games Aston Villa, Fulham and Sheffield United if they are to avoid slipping up. The last three months of the season is far from straightforward.
Away games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham complicate matters. Reigning champions Liverpool will be the final of their ‘Big Six’ opponents, albeit in a packed run-in which also includes difficult fixtures versus Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Consistency will be key during this period, if they are to achieve their objectives at the back end of the season.
Perhaps the single most influential figure for Manchester United. Bruno Fernandes changed the tide for the Red Devils in the second half of the season and how. Brimming with vigour in the final third, the Portuguese international’s enterprising outlook has added a different dimension to United’s attacking display.
Fernandes will need to be on the money once again when the 2020/21 campaign kicks off for Manchester United next week. If he can manage to keep up his incredible levels in his first full season with the club, the upcoming season could hold loads of potential for United.
Before Bruno Fernandes first stepped foot on the Old Trafford turf, Manchester United had been carried by Marcus Rashford and his blossoming brilliance.
With Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba on the sidelines in the early stages of the season, Rashford had it all to do in the first half of the campaign. While wins eluded them at times, the English international was almost constantly doing the heavy lifting.
After making his return following recovery from a long-term back injury, Rashford seems to have gone somewhat cold, but a short break might have been what he needed to recharge batteries. A big season awaits him now. Can he step up a level in the 2020/21 season?
2019/20 was quite a difficult season for Paul Pogba. At the onset of the campaign, the Frenchman’s future at Manchester United was up in the air following his explosive comments alluding towards wanting a new challenge in his career.
While he ended up staying put, Pogba spent much of last term being out injured due to a troublesome ankle. Pogba finally returned when footballing action resumed in June and he immediately seemed to have forged a strong tandem with Bruno Fernandes.
The 2020/21 season will now entail Pogba to carry on the momentum and step it up a notch. If he can manage to do so, whilst retaining his chemistry with Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United will be in good stead for the season.
A career-best 23 goals this season for Martial 🙌
The Frenchman explains why this campaign was different 🔥 pic.twitter.com/pQJ7CBYqRY
— Goal (@goal) August 23, 2020
This list is incomplete without Manchester United’s top scorer for the 2019/20 season. When the curtains were raised on the campaign, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a strong point after offloading Romelu Lukaku. Anthony Martial was now his first-choice striker and the Frenchman faced a litmus test of his temperament and abilities.
Given more responsibility to lead the line week-in week-out, Martial raised his game, albeit after a rather blow-hot-blow-cold start to the season. In particular, the French forward has appeared to be a completely different player following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes.
Sharing a fine understanding with the Portuguese playmaker in addition to Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, Martial has become much more prolific, breaching the 20-goal mark for the first time in his Manchester United stint. Now, he needs to continue his upward trajectory in order to guide United to another strong campaign. Can he score 30 for the season in 2020/21?
Last season saw a change of guard at Manchester United. As the year turned, Ashley Young left the club to join Inter Milan. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now had to pick a new club captain, a challenge that fell upon the shoulders of Harry Maguire. The English international had only arrived at Old Trafford half-a-year ago in a big-money move from Leicester City.
Over the course of the first half of the season, he had been handed the captain’s armband on several occasions. So, the transition was quite seamless, considering Maguire was already a leader on the pitch for Manchester United. Defensively, he has done a decent enough job as well, making the Red Devils’ backline increasingly impregnable.
However, heading into the 2020/21 season, Maguire has been mired in controversy after being convicted of assault while on holiday in Greece. Guilty or not, the Manchester United captain now desperately needs to put the incident behind him and put his complete attention on delivering the goods for his club on the pitch. Can he brush his off-field issues aside in order to aid his side’s cause in the coming season?
2019/20 was a stormy season, of sorts, for Manchester United. In the first half of their campaign, it hardly looked like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & co. had what it takes to make the much sought-after return to the Champions League, although a lot of it had to do with unfortunate fitness issues.
Things turned around dramatically before they finished an impressive third, but there is a sense that with Chelsea and Tottenham making smart acquisitions this summer, United could be left on the wayside in the coming season. Securing the services of Jadon Sancho is imperative if Solskjaer wants to continue his squad’s transformation, with very little in terms of quality backup in attack.
Bolstering other key areas will also be important and Manchester United need to step on the gas in order to wrap up their summer business quickly. If they can get all their targets over the line, a potential title tilt cannot be ruled out. For now, though, Solskjaer & co. seem destined for another top four dogfight.
THT Prediction: 4th
Author Prediction: 4th