After the much-maligned Jesse Lingard stole the ball off Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and caressed it home into an empty net deep into stoppage time at the King Power Stadium, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer smiled from ear-to-ear. His team pulled off what seems like a miracle, outfoxing the Foxes and Chelsea to finish third in the Premier League table.
The overwhelming feeling was that of relief rather than joy, as the England record-champions sealed a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League after a tumultuous campaign. Solskjaer, who has been criticized by fans and media alike, deserves plaudits aplenty for what he has achieved this season.
Things are looking up for Ole
The Norwegian reached the semi-final of both domestic cup competitions and finished only behind Liverpool and Manchester City, who are arguably the two best teams on the planet when it comes to the Premier League.
He’s gotten the best out of young forwards Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford and helped divisive superstar Paul Pogba resettle at the club after two strenuous years under former manager Jose Mourinho.
His integration of teenager Mason Greenwood and January signing Bruno Fernandes in the starting XI made a huge impact on United’s campaign and saw them play some swashbuckling football to finish the Premier League campaign with a 14-game unbeaten run.
Solskjaer and his side will now head to Portugal, where his side are one of the overwhelming favourites to lift the Europa League, and the club legend will be eager to add a European trophy to his CV in his first full season as United manager.
The 20-time English champions are also the front-runners, perhaps the only runners, in the race to sign Borussia Dortmund’s young sensation Jadon Sancho. Murmurs around Europe suggest that it’s a matter of when rather than if the Red Devils secure the Englishman’s signature.
It’s been a good year for Manchester United so far but there’s no time for the club to rest on their laurels. They still have to close the gap on champions Liverpool who finished 33 points clear of United and more importantly, improve on their abysmal performances in the Champions League.
A decade of disappointment in the UCL
Since their loss to Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final, their third appearance in the final in four years, United have been lacklustre in Europe’s premier cup competition.
In the nine seasons that have followed that 3-1 defeat, United have been booted out of the group stage twice, beaten in the quarter-final twice, lost in the round-of-16 twice and have failed to qualify for the UCL thrice. During this period, the club has spent well over one billion pounds on players but have been below par under the bright lights of the Champions League.
United’s last appearance in the Champions League was in the 2018-2019 campaign, where they scripted one of the greatest comebacks in the competition’s history, fighting their way back from a 0-2 home deficit to beat PSG 3-1 at the Parc De Princes to advance to the quarter-final.
It was this match that all but confirmed Solskjaer’s appointment as the United boss, but the fairytale didn’t last long as United were thumped 0-4 on aggregate in the last-eight stage by Barcelona, ending another disappointing European run for the three-time winners of the competition.
A squad assembled for success
United’s defence was statistically among the best in Europe. The team kept more clean sheets than any other in Europe’s top five leagues. However, their deep runs in cup competitions against inferior opponents have played a part in bloating the number.
However, the defence has kept clean sheets home and away against Chelsea and Leicester in the league and also conceded just one goal in two matches against Manchester City, who were the league’s top scorers with 102 goals.
United’s defence has played better as a unit as the season has progressed, with Aaron Wan Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw getting acquainted with playing alongside each other. However, the frequent errors from goalkeeper David de Gea, who also let a weak Leo Messi shot beat him in last season’s 0-3 defeat at the Camp Nou in the Champions League.
United, though, have standout keeper Dean Henderson waiting in the wings to take over the goalkeeper’s spot in the starting XI and Solskjaer will certainly be relaxed about his team’s goalkeeping situation.
In Nemanja Matic, Pogba and Fernandes, United have a midfield that is on par with any in the world. Fernandes’ end product and his industry, Pogba’s playmaking and his vision, and Matic’s incredibly composed figure behind the two give the team the perfect blend in midfield.
Talented young midfielder Scott McTominay and Brazilian Fred provide enough depth for United. However, they would ideally like to bring in another midfielder and have been constantly linked to Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Ajax’s Donny van de Beek.
The improvement that the attacking players have shown is perhaps Solskjaer’s biggest achievement so far. Martial and Rashford have scored 23 each - their most prolific campaigns by far - and Greenwood tied Wayne Rooney’s record of 18 for most goals by a teenager for Manchester United in a season. It is particularly remarkable because the 18-year-old wasn’t a regular starter in the Premier League till about 10 games ago.
Add Jadon Sancho in the mix and United could have an attack that can rip apart any defence.
How will United fare in the Champions League next season?
As it stands, United will be in Pot 2 of the Champions League draw, which consists of league runners-up and teams with a good co-efficient, UEFA’s club ranking metric.
Pot 1 consists of league champions and Europa League winners, so it’s essential for United to win the competition and avoid the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG and Juventus in the group stage and increase their chances of qualifying for the knockout stage as group winners and get a favourable matchup in the round-of-16.
Post that, it’s all luck. United reached the final of the UEFA Champions League in 2011 by beating an average Marseille side, an out-of-form Chelsea and surprise semi-finalists Schalke.
Even if United get a tough draw, it’s unlikely to bother them much, as their pace on the counter is pretty much unrivalled and has been a hallmark of Manchester United sides of the past as well as the teams during Solskjaer’s tenure.
Winning the Europa League should be high on the agenda for Manchester United because if they do, it increases their odds of securing a favourable draw and venturing deep into the competition - something they have done for a decade.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Geoffroy van der Hasselt
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