With the curtains falling on the 2019/20 Premier League season, The Hard Tackle takes a look at how Manchester United can strengthen for next term.
Things are never straightforward when it comes to Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. 2019/20 has been yet another topsy-turvy ride for the Red Devils, who were once languishing in the bottom half of the table, with fans and pundits calling for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s head.
In the end, though, the record 20-time English champions completed their objective in the Premier League and finished in the top four. In fact, they bridged what was once a 14-point gap to Leicester City to ultimately topple the once-third placed Foxes.
The only unbeaten team in the top-flight after football resumed in England, Manchester United ended the term third on the table, with the third-best defensive record and a handy goal difference of +30. Having said that, after a reasonably successful Premier League campaign, now is the time to step on the gas and make further improvements to kick in the next phase of their evolution.
One of the priorities is Jadon Sancho, as has been well documented by now. However, if United are to mount a serious challenge on all fronts next season, they need to recruit more than just one player, with the current squad seriously lacking in a couple of departments. Strength in depth, in particular, will be key for Solskjaer & co. to sustain their levels over the course of an entire season.
To that end, Manchester United could perhaps, target a few players from clubs that have been relegated to the Championship. Between them, Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City have a number of Premier League quality players and exploiting their dire situations to beef up their squad could be the way to go.
After all, it is highly likely that Manchester United could secure a cut-price deal for such players, making such prospects even more attractive. That Hard Tackle now picks out three players from the relegated clubs that Manchester United should look to sign in the summer transfer window.
Nathan Ake (Bournemouth)
Manchester United considerably improved their defensive record in the season gone by. From letting in an astonishing 54 goals in their 2018/19 Premier League campaign, United tightened things at the back, conceding 36 goals this term. Only Liverpool (33) and Manchester City (35) had better defensive records and the duo were not too far ahead.
Having said that, there is still a lot of room for improvement, seeing as a lot of goals that United did concede this season were down to individual errors rather than the implementation of a poor system. While what happens with the visibly regressing David de Gea remains to be seen, making the defensive line more secure is the need of the hour as well.
After all, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who once famously said, “attack wins you matches, defence wins you titles.” If Manchester United are to take that next steep, they must pay heed to the words of their best ever manager and add to the competition for Victor Lindelof, who has unfortunately been prone to lapses in concentration this season.
To that end, someone like Nathan Ake is the perfect candidate to sit at the heart of the Manchester United defence. The Dutch international joined Bournemouth permanently from Chelsea in the summer of 2017 after a solid loan spell at Dean Court in the previous season. Since then, his stock has only risen, thanks in large part to his consistent displays at the back.
Even in the season gone by, Ake was one of few Bournemouth players who could hold their head up high, rarely letting his levels drop. In addition, the fact that he made 0 errors leading to a goal this term is quite impressive to say the least, considering the Cherries let in 65 goals.
Furthermore, the fact that he can be available for a cut-price sum means that Manchester United will only need to allocate a small portion of their summer budget, which will invariably be largely set aside for Jadon Sancho. So far, though, Manchester City appear to be the favourites to sign Ake.
However, the latest reports suggest that Ake has not made his mind up, as far as his next club is concerned. What might also please Manchester United fans is that the reliable Paul Hirst of The Times has claimed that the 25-year-old is a part of a four-man shortlist of centre-backs that the Red Devils are eyeing.
Here is a player who is a complete package, possessing pace, ball-playing abilities as well as the strength needed to succeed in the English game. All these traits make him an ideal foil for Harry Maguire and signing him should be a step in the right direction for Manchester United.
Max Aarons (Norwich City)
When Norwich City were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the 2018/19 season, there were several players who were placed in the “Players to Watch” bracket. Quite a few of them left a lasting impression, either by performing for large parts of the campaign or going on a stunning run of form at some stage.
One of the players who were touted for big things for 2019/20 was Max Aarons. However, for one reason or another, the young full-back was unable to reach the levels he was performing at in the second-tier. Perhaps, the fact that Norwich were, more often than not, on the back-foot this term meant that he was unable to showcase his abilities.
Indeed, in the Championship, Norwich were able to impose themselves in games. As a result, Aarons managed to express himself in the final third more freely. At Manchester United, he could be in a similar situation, considering Solskjaer’s men dominate possession in most games.
In Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Solskjaer has a top class right-back at his disposal, which might lead one to think that Manchester United do not really have the need to sign a right-back, especially with Ethan Laird primed to become a regular in the first-team setup in due course. However, Laird is still some way off establishing a foothold in Solskjaer’s squad, despite being promoted to the first-team.
With Diogo Dalot rumoured to be on the exit trail and linked with Barcelona, Aarons could be a worthwhile replacement, at least for the short-term, till Laird is ready to feature regularly. A player who possesses the ability to deliver dangerous crosses into the box while also having a solid work-rate that enables him to charge up and down the field through the game, he could offer Solskjaer something different to what Wan-Bissaka.
At the same time, Aarons’s presence in the squad would prompt Solskjaer to rest Wan-Bissaka from time to time, provided he can impress the Manchester United boss. The Norwich full-back has also been linked with Manchester United on a few occasions previously and it would not be surprising if they choose to replace Dalot with him.
Abdoulaye Doucoure (Watford)
Now this one is a bit of a left-of-centre option for Manchester United. However logically, Abdoulaye Doucoure is a player who could offer a lot of value at Old Trafford, if United prise him away from Watford. Doucoure would also be a fine economical alternative for Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, especially amid latest developments surrounding him.
Grealish, who has been one of the priorities for Manchester United as per reports, has an £80 million price tag. And, according to the aforementioned report by Paul Hirst, Grealish is worried that he may be priced out of a dream move to United this summer.
If that is indeed the case and if Aston Villa are adamant on holding out for £80 million, then Manchester United might just have to pull out. It is important to note that Ed Woodward has already warned that it might not be business as usual for the Red Devils this summer and if the fee for Sancho takes up a large chunk of the pie, then shelling out £80 million might be out of question.
In such a scenario, Manchester United will probably have to turn their attention elsewhere, seeing as there is a lack of a reliable backup option for Bruno Fernandes. Indeed, while Scott McTominay and Fred are capable of playing in the midfield double pivot, neither is a good fit in the no. 10 role.
The 27-year-old breaks up play, works tirelessly in the middle and makes driving runs in the opposition half. Very good ball-carrier, strong and powerful. 4 goals and 2 assists this season as an AM. Not as productive as CM. pic.twitter.com/8vFdvWl6Pk
— EK (@EKRegista) July 27, 2020
Presently, Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira are the backups for Bruno Fernandes. And judging by Solskjaer’s reluctance to fall back on either player, even in a cramped run-in, it is likely that United will be in the market for some other midfield reinforcement this summer, if they are unable to land Grealish.
Doucoure, to that end, could be an attractive option. Firstly, the 27-year-old is capable of playing in any position in midfield, a quality that Solskjaer particularly appreciates.
In addition to his versatility, his 29 direct goal contributions in 129 Premier League games comes at a healthy rate of nearly one per four games, with the player proving to be a viable threat with his late runs ghosting into the box. His work-rate also makes him a seamless fit in the system, potentially.
So, he could be an option worth looking at for Manchester United, considering he will not cost a bomb either. After all, Bruno Fernandes might have stunning levels of fitness, but over the course of a season, Solskjaer will need to rotate him more often.