mystery, a conundrum, a riddle, wrapped in the enigma of a third-place Premier League finish and three lost semi-finals: Manchester United at the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first full season as manager.
Yet this is the United of the post-Alex Ferguson era. One characterisation of the English champions in the seven years since he stepped away is that they have become used to mediocrity.
Having finished seventh under David Moyes in 2014, Louis van Gaal improved things slightly by ending up fourth and fifth before the high point of second place under José Mourinho in 2017-18. Solskjær took over midway through the next campaign as United ended up sixth but even this season’s third place means their average position in the table is just outside the top four.
Defeats in the semi-finals of League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League were also a worrying trend Solskjaer will know he must address quickly. But despite the progress made during the 19-match run that helped United secure third spot, he must try to avoid United becoming akin to Mourinho’s second season at Old Trafford. The club’s recent history suggests it will not be easy.
On being sacked in December 2018 Mourinho repeated his favoured line about United’s previous campaign. “I consider one of the best jobs of my career to finish second in the Premier League,” he said, before adding. “I keep saying this because people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.”
Mourinho may have been referring to the failure of Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, and his football brains-trust to sign Harry Maguire from Leicester in the summer of 2018 or Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic a year before. Clearer is that what occurs in United’s financial department in the current window will again be a prime factor in whether Solskjær can move United on.
Against Sevilla, the contradictions of United were illuminated yet again. The Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial strike force carry menace but have a propensity to spurn chances. They did so on Sunday, as they did against FC Copenhagen in the quarter-finals, and as they did on copious other occasions in the season.
Solskjær’s plan is all-out attack. The quartet’s goal-return was 23 for Martial, 22 for Rashford, 17 for Greenwood and 11 for Fernandes. Seventy-three in all competitions is hardly shabby and puts even more of the spotlight on a defence that ended the season in nose-dive fashion due to Maguire and Victor Lindelöf’s pedestrian pace being exposed and some dodgy positioning by them and the full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams.
The obvious answer is to strengthen. But then the Jadon Sancho situation comes into play. The problem for Solskjær is the lack of money to purchase a centre-back or left-back of, say, Kalidou Koulibaly or Ben Chilwell’s quality, should the circa £100m deal for the Borussia Dortmund forward go through.
The stance at United is that the financial drain caused by the coronavirus lockdown means there is not much cash left after a marquee buy like Sancho, the corollary being that Solskjær has to somehow pull an Andy Robertson-priced bargain (who cost £8m from Hull) from the hat when buying the defender he wants.
Despite this, a glance at rivals suggests he may still be the manager with the most generous budget. Across town, Pep Guardiola has moved to shore up his creaky Manchester City rearguard with the £41m buy of Nathan Ake, while also adding forward Ferran Torres for £24.5m – a total of £65m that may only be modestly increased by further signings.
At the champions, Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp has added a left-back, Konstantinos Tsimikas, for £8.1m, and while there could be further investment this is likely to be low-end unless they can strike a deal with Bayern Munich for Thiago Alcântara. Even for Chelsea, who were fourth, Frank Lampard’s £84m splurge on centre-forward Timo Werner and winger Hakim Ziyech looks to be about the limit, and thus not approaching United’s expected outlay.
There is, though, an unpalatable truth for Solskjær and United supporters: even Sancho plus a centre-back will surely not elevate a squad into the rarefied air of Liverpool, whose 19th title followed becoming European champions in the previous season. A lack of depth in quality in most positions is the glaring problem, as shown by Solskjær’s refusal to make any changes against Sevilla until three minutes from time.
Afterwards his take on recruitment was telling. “It is not about marquee, we need quality, the right player, the right personality. We might look at it today and see where we need to improve.”
If this was a message to Woodward, whether he pulls off all that is required during this transfer window remains to be seen.