The transfer window will be open for another month and Manchester United have already signed two statements. This fact alone is something for fans to celebrate.
“We first climbed towards the end of the window and now I have to say that we are in a good position,” said manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after securing the arrival of Jadon Sancho and a principled agreement for Raphael Varane before the end of July .
The question of whether one of the richest and most successful sports franchises in the world should celebrate by making only two transfers is best spared for another time. The fact remains that United ruined most of their recruiting campaigns before Solskjaer took over in December 2018. Now, it appears they have their best pre-season window since Robin van Persie’s transformative signing nine years ago, a deal that announced their most recent Premier League title.
More signings may still come before the end-of-August deadline, although this depends on sales, but United will almost certainly look stronger than last term when it starts 2021-22. Their attempt to bridge the gap with the Manchester City champions, make a good punch of a Champions League run and win a first trophy since 2017 … well, they all look a little more promising than they were in the end. May, in that tiring Europa League final with Villareal.
Off the pitch, Solskjaer did a great job. Now comes the time for the Red Devils to constantly shoot. They are close to the top but, as demonstrated by the 12-point gap from City last season, not enough. Solskjaer’s tactical decisions could spell the difference between another year of disappointment and a return to their place at the top of English football.
United had to play a long game to get Sancho back to England, but it proved convenient in the end. Borussia Dortmund wanted over € 100m guaranteed a year ago but sold Sancho in 2021 for a figure believed to be worth £ 72.9m (€ 85m), the fourth highest in United’s history.
There is a reason Solskjaer was prepared to be patient. He likes his attackers to be fast, direct and fearless, with a spontaneous brilliance often encouraged on more systematic attack patterns. In this regard, Sancho may just be Solskjaer’s ideal signature.
Sancho’s offensive output is frightening. He scored 38 goals and provided 45 assists in 104 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund; since his debut in October 2017, only Thomas Muller (91) and Robert Lewandowski (137) have managed to more directly involve goals. During that time, Sancho also attempted 544 dribbles – 100 more than any other player in the German top flight – and completed 284, again the most in the division.
But why stop at a dribble? Over the past four seasons, Sancho has also pioneered multi take-ons – times where he has tried to beat more than one player – with 48, at least 14 more than anyone else in the Bundesliga. In that same period, United’s best performer of the genre was Anthony Martial with 39.
Sancho, therefore, is an optimal player for an attack where improvisation is key. His skill and audacity with the ball could be key to United in finding a way through those low-blocking defenses against which they may seem notoriously hard-working.
But to free Sancho to the fullest, Solskjaer must modify the system.
SWITCH TO MCTOMIFRED
“As long as the two of them play in midfield for Manchester United, they won’t win big trophies,” former captain Roy Keane said of Fred and Scott McTominay following May’s 4-2 home defeat to Liverpool. So far, it has proved correct.
Solskjaer often favored a double pivot from Fred and McTominay to shield the defense, allowing Bruno Fernandes creative freedom as number 10. It often worked well, particularly against stronger opposition where United were happy to give up the ball : In 2020-21, they have lost only two of the 21 league games in which both players have started, averaging under one goal per game conceded. The problem is that they only won 10 of those games.
“Attack makes you win games, defense makes you win titles” was the old Ferguson adage. Favoring Fred and McTominay last season, Solskjaer focused on both and didn’t even dominate. Sometimes they were possession-based, sometimes counter-knuckles, but never quite comfortable in either form.
In 2020-21, United put together 562 sequences of over 10 passes, a figure of over 300 behind the City champions. Furthermore, they only finished fifth in the championship for sequence passes (4.14) and build-up attacks (125). However, they weren’t even masters of fast counterattack – they handled 61 direct attacks last season, the eighth-most in the division, and although they scored six times from counterattacks, those goals came from just 13 such attempts. – surprisingly, seven less than City.
United’s attack was second only to City in goals scored, but it still wasn’t as effective as it should have been. They finished last season with 392 free throw shots in the Premier League, only the fifth highest in the competition. The expected score of 44 goals put them in third place, as did their actual tally of 53, when own goals and penalties are excluded.
One option to hone the last third would be to drop the 4-2-3-1 for a 4-3-3, allowing a more forward-thinking midfielder to join Fernandes in the middle. It might be Paul Pogba, but if the French star gets the move he apparently wants, it’s a role that Donny van de Beek would do too, who underscored his determination to recover from a bad first season in England by returning for pre-season. with some extra serious muscle.
Leeds United’s 6-2 at Old Trafford showed the value of a midfielder breaking lines – McTominay, in that case – and United’s opening against his old rivals in August would be the perfect time to test the 4 -3-3 Solskjaer is said to be meditating. With Fred as a patrol defender – he won possession more often than any other United player (228) last season, and his 81 tackle attempts were only enhanced by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88) – Solskjaer could give the license to two forwards midfielders to support Sancho and Mason Greenwood, back in shape, who will probably start in place of the injured Marcus Rashford.
Of course, such a shift from the double defensive pivot puts the defense at greater risk. There will also be games where more caution is needed: key Champions League matches or Manchester derby. But Solskjaer may have already solved that problem.
Whatever some pundits may think about the pitfalls of adapting to the Premier League, United appear to have taken a masterstroke by signing Raphael Varane.
World Cup winner, four-time Champions League winner, three-time La Liga champion, Varane brings tremendous experience of success to a team still short on the skills to raise trophies. The massive French international should also, one would expect, improve United’s appalling record last season of conceding 14 goals from set pieces, a tally surpassed only by Leeds (15) (Varane won 72.3% of the antennas in the 2020-21; Victor Lindelof only won 59.4).
It will also add pace to a United defense that often feels bulky when Harry Maguire and Lindelof face direct runners – another reason Solskjaer liked his double screen in midfield. And that extra speed could also allow United to push themselves further – their average starting position of 42.3 meters from goal last season was deeper than six other teams.
A higher line would make the attack easier and perhaps keep the opponent’s shots counting down. United faced 317 in 2020-21, more than Arsenal, Wolves, Brighton and Hove Albion, and relegated Fulham. Limiting attempts on goal would also reduce the pressure on the goalkeeper as David de Gea and Dean Henderson continue to fight for the top spot.
The center-back also offers a tactical bonus, which Solskjaer has already hinted at: he can play quite comfortably in a three-man defense. Maguire, Varane and Lindelof would represent a massive rear and would allow the rejuvenated Luke Shaw to push himself high as a rear wing. If United’s search for Kieran Trippier proves fruitful, even better. A 3-4-1-2 would give Solskjaer that defensive safety balance without compromising too much offensive quality, which could be essential for the biggest derbies, knockout matches or cup finals.
Varane and Sancho give United serious star power, but also tactical flexibility and winning potential. If Solskjaer can trust his defense to remain steadfast and free the attack, the gap with City could begin to narrow and that elusive first trophy could be within his grasp.