Premier League 2020-21 preview No 13: Manchester United | Football

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 4th (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 3rd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 11-1

Can United really better last season’s third position? How will the Harry Maguire affair affect the side’s ability to improve? Because this is what has to be achieved in 2020-21 for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to be able to point to his team’s trajectory remaining on the up following the rise from sixth in 2018-19.

Yet to do so United must surely somehow finish ahead of one of Liverpool – who were 33 points their superior last season – and Manchester City, who were 15. If it proves impossible then United must finish third again having genuinely challenged for the championship until the latter stages.

In this bid Jadon Sancho’s (still) hoped-for arrival from Borussia Dortmund would cast him as D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood in attack: a formidable proposition. Yet there is a case for the 20-year-old, actually, being the wrong marquee signing given that the more vital issues occupying Solskjær’s inbox are defence and a lack of depth.

When Bruno Fernandes’s 12 goals (following his arrival in the winter window) are added to those returned by Martial, Rashford and Greenwood, Solskjær’s front four delivered 73 last term. As this total can be expected to improve – Fernandes will have half a-season more to increase his tally, for one – then Sancho’s intended £100m purchase hardly appears the best use of funds. Instead a centre-back with the pace of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly might be a better recruit, while the manager also looks to bolster at left-back and holding midfield. Without strengthening in these positions there may to be too many uncertainties. Donny van de Beek’s arrival from Ajax provides more midfield creativity.

Can Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw fly along their flanks and create an extra dimension? Can Brandon Williams step up if one or both falter? Will Paul Pogba bring his World Cup-winning form to United or his United form to United? His agent, Mino Raiola, has stated the Frenchman will definitely stay at the club – echoing what Solskjær has said – but can the midfielder be a bona fide, week-to-week force?

Manchester United

There are further posers. David de Gea and his apparent decline as a world-class No 1: can he arrest the slide or will this prove a headache that while not on the Maguire scale could still trouble the manager – what to do about a £300,000-a-week goalkeeper with three years left on his lucrative contract. The answer – in the short term – may be to drop him, decide whether Sergio Romero or the untried (for Manchester United) Dean Henderson can deputise and hope De Gea returns smarting and restored. Solskjær – perhaps concerningly – has answered questions about De Gea’s place by saying the Spaniard has impressed in training … only for the goalkeeper to make another mistake.

Then, there is Maguire. The United captain has appealed against convictions in a Greek court that include bodily harm and attempted bribery. The hearing may not be for a year – at least – so how Maguire performs with this hovering over him will be crucial.

All this points to the following formula for United to prosper: the dynamic front end has to be even better than last term to keep the ball away from the shaky back end. This is unless Solskjær can convince Ed Woodward to about-turn and spend on a Koulibaly or similar. Otherwise, boiled down, the Norwegian’s appears a similar strategy to Pep Guardiola’s for Manchester City: attack as defence. But, just like their crosstown rival, vulnerability against pace is an achilles heel.

It will be true domestically and in continental competition, where United are back in the big time. Their recent record does not augur well. Solskjær’s timing was impeccable in securing third place on the very last day but since Sir Alex Ferguson left in May 2013 a Champions League quarter-final under David Moyes the following term is their best run. Much depends on the draw and while United will be hopeful of emerging from the group stage this may be as far as they can progress.

The manager

On the touchline Has a cool-eyed demeanour but that can turn quickly, as it did when he told Jesse Lingard regarding his poor touch during January’s 1-0 win at Manchester City: “One more time and you are off.” Often spied studying a monitor.

On Zoom Has taken to the small screen as naturally as when he first met the media after being appointed caretaker manager. Can – and has – seen the funny side when the inevitable technical glitches occur as he did when he was muted for one post-game briefing.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær has an abundance of attacking options at his disposal. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Uefa/Getty Images

The key

Is it De Gea, to prove there will be no more point-costing errors? Or Pogba, by returning a season-long contribution rather than his usual sporadic flashes of form? No, United’s main man is Bruno Fernandes, whose whirling dervish act has transformed the team since he joined in January. Take away his energy, invention, will to win and goals and United will flounder. Badly.

The owners

Malcolm Glazer’s controversial leveraged buyout in 2005 caused a still-felt fan fury due to the near half-billion debt loaded on the club. Glazer has died, succeeded by his six children, headed by Avram and Joel, who are no more popular than their father. In Ed Woodward, the owners have an executive vice-chairman who has transformed the club into a £2bn-plus valued corporation. To the naysayers, the club has lost its soul.

Young blood

At 18 Teden Mengi made his senior bow in the closing six minutes of the 2-1 Europa League win over Lask on 5 August. He then travelled to Cologne for the latter stages of the tournament. Solskjær has vacancies in his rearguard so Mengi will hope to force his way into the first-team reckoning as a replacement, at least.

Manchester United’s Teden Mengi will be hoping for more first-team action

Manchester United’s Teden Mengi will be hoping for more first-team action. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

New blood

Van de Beek, a Netherlands international, provides greater depth and quality in midfield. Greater excitement would greet the signing of Sancho but will he arrive?

Kit story

From the white shirt with blue sash and blue shorts of Newton Heath LYR in 1878 through the still resonant green and gold (with white and blue shorts) in the 1890s to the world famous colours. Why red (with white shorts) is unclear: might it be a reference to the financial peril escaped from in 1902 when becoming Manchester United?

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Notes from an empty stadium

Post-lockdown Old Trafford was adorned with a mosaic made up from the images of thousands of supporters after a club call for these to be sent in. The display is draped across the seats in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. . There has been an eschewing of oversized, goal-side fan-cams.

Euros vision

Greenwood, after a 17-goal breakthrough season that places him alongside George Best, Brian Kidd and Wayne Rooney as the club’s highest scoring teenagers, received a first call-up in August. Come next summer he may well be an England squad fixture.

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