This was a disappointing end to Manchester United’s title bid… but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has built a platform for the Red Devils to now progress for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson departed eight years ago
On the face of it this was a pretty strange way to try and chase down a Premier League title that was technically still there to be won. A raft of changes from the weekend and a performance that smelled just a little bit of uninterest.
But for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team, this was never about winning the league.
This was a season that began with a home defeat by Crystal Palace, a setback soon followed by a 6-1 dismantling from Tottenham. From that point, the direction of travel has been largely north. United have made progress under Solskjaer more impressively than many of us ever thought possible and that was always the ambition.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has Manchester United heading in the right direction despite title failure
United’s Premier League title bid ended on Tuesday evening after Caglar Soyuncu’s (back) second half header saw them lose 2-1 to Leicester City at Old Trafford
This was a disappointing end to their nominal pursuit of new champions Manchester City. But it was understandable.
Liverpool visit Old Trafford on Thursday and United have an opportunity to all but end their rivals’ Champions League hopes. That would be sweet. Then, later this month, they play in the final of the Europa League.
So, yes, this has been a season of significant steps forward by United. They are not yet a team ready to compete properly for a league title, especially given the improvements we can expect to see in Chelsea and Liverpool next year.
But they are closer. Solskjaer has built his club a platform from which they can push forwards and he is the first United manager to have done that since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Although Harry Maguire is now nursing a ligament injury, Solskjaer has enjoyed the benefits of fielding a settled back four for much of the campaign
Highlights in United’s season featured a 2-0 win at rivals Manchester City, with Bruno Fernandes pictured celebrating his side’s second goal at the Etihad Stadium
United will have improvement to make if they want to get there. They have been relatively fortunate with injuries this season. Solskjaer has been able to field a settled back four all campaign and rely on the creativity of Bruno Fernandes throughout. The importance of those two factors cannot be understated.
United also need to be better and – strange as it sounds – braver against the big teams. Under Solskjaer, United have lacked some personality at times.
Performances at Anfield and the Emirates this season, for example, were desperately short on confidence against Liverpool and Arsenal teams that were there to be beaten. Both games ended 0-0. In the glory years of this football club, they certainly would not have.
Equally, there have been glimpses of a team on the rise in recent weeks and months.
Manchester United are heading in the right direction for the first time since their last title success under Sir Alex Ferguson eight years ago
A second-half performance to win at Tottenham last month was superb, as was a win at City. Strangely, the new champions are one side that seem to bring the best out of Solskjaer’s team.
Meanwhile the retaining of Edinson Cavani well in advance of next season may be indicative of some overdue joined up thinking at executive level now that Darren Fletcher and John Murtagh have been placed in control of strategic matters.
Cavani, the centre forward, has been terrific to watch. A personal highlight was his performance in a League Cup win at Everton just before Christmas. The Uruguayan was magnificent that night and will be a sight to relish in front of the paying public at Old Trafford next season.
And that is when we will see the real worth or otherwise of this team. Next season.
Edinson Cavani has been retained for 2021-22 following a decent campaign from the veteran
United need additions this summer. Another central defender, for sure, and maybe another wide player.
If they get that bit right then Solskjaer must believe his team can win a title. It is then that we will discover whether this United team really does have the strength of character to play for a whole nine months.
Solskjaer has been calm during some periods of pressure this season and, when it has been needed, has shown a little authority too. The Norwegian has always been somewhat harder than he looks.
Having arrived as an emergency and short-term replacement for Jose Mourinho in December 2018, the 48-year-old has travelled some distance since then.
This season we crown one of the best champion teams in recent memory and currently United are only 10 points behind them. That must tell us something.