Premier League 2020/21 mid-season review: Manchester United

The second half of the 2020/21 Premier League season is underway. The Hard Tackle runs Manchester United and what beckons them for the rest of the season.

The Premier League era can essentially be characterized by two distinct periods – one which was thoroughly dominated by Manchester United, the other wherein the Red Devils have struggled to remain relevant in the title picture.

Indeed, till the time Sir Alex Ferguson was at the helm at Old Trafford, Manchester United were the single-most domineering outfit that the Premier League has seen till date, winning the title in 13 of the 21 seasons before he announced his retirement in 2013. Since then, however, the record 20-time English champions have never really been proper contenders to win the trophy once again.

In fact, to illustrate just how far they have fallen in the seven full seasons that have followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the Red Devils have managed to finish inside the top four just three times. In this period, Manchester United, who were the symbol of longevity for the longest time, have sacked three managers, which include proven winners like Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the fourth manager to be appointed on a permanent basis by the club and it is suffice to say that United have steadily improved under the tutelage of their former striker, who was affectionately called the ‘Baby Faced Assassin’. While the initial highs, which included the inspiring PSG comeback win, were followed by belated teething problems, Solskjaer gradually did improve the team at his disposal.

The initial highs were followed by the lowest of lows. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
The initial highs were followed by the lowest of lows. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It goes without saying that Bruno Fernandes and his arrival has perhaps, been the single biggest factor to have galvanized Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. However, it will be unfair towards Solskjaer to say that it is just the Portuguese international who drove United back into the UEFA Champions League.

Solskjaer has definitively improved a number of players, with Marcus Rashford developing new facets to his game while Luke Shaw, Fred and Scott McTominay have become important members of the squad. Paul Pogba is finally performing with consistency while Anthony Martial ended as the top scorer for Manchester United last season before his lull this season.

Speaking of the ongoing campaign, 2020/21 could not have started on a worse possible note for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & co. Manchester United were already making a belated start to the season after having gone deep into last season’s UEFA Europa League. That meant they barely had a pre-season, participating in just one friendly ahead of the onset of their campaign, losing 1-0 to Aston Villa.

Manchester United’s first Premier League game of the season saw them suffer a shock 3-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace before just about managing to beat Brighton & Hove Albion 3-2, courtesy a controversial late penalty. The upturn in fortunes did not last long as they suffered a second home defeat in a row. This time, Tottenham Hotspur handed them an embarrassing 6-1 loss.

Their home form continued to remain horrendous, as Chelsea held them to a goalless stalemate before Arsenal handed them a 1-0 defeat, both at Old Trafford. This result saw them plummet to 15th on the Premier League table, with many calling for Solskjaer’s head. However, Manchester United appeared to be an entirely different team on the road, as they kept on finding ways to grab all three points in away games.

Indeed, the first time Manchester United dropped points on their travels was in their final away game of the year, as Leicester City held them to a 2-2 draw. Around this time, United’s home form distinctively improved, as Solskjaer’s men embarked on a 13-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, with this visible improvement also propelling them all the way up to the summit of the division.

So, while they suffered a humbling exit from the UEFA Champions League, the Premier League run offered a lot of hope. However, their most recent run has been quite concerning, as Manchester United have had to work as hard as they ever have in order to find the back of the net, while their defence has been extremely vulnerable.

This has meant that United have managed just one win in their last four games, although that result was a 9-0 thumping of Southampton. Manchester United’s most recent result, though, saw them squander a lead twice to be held to a 3-3 draw by Everton, a result that has left them five points adrift of the high-flying Manchester City. Amid the highs and lows there have been a few surprises on offer as well, which takes us to our next section.

Surprise Package

Bruno Fernandes has continued to set an example with each passing performance, playing a pivotal role in Manchester United’s resurgence. Marcus Rashford has also been raising his levels, even though there is a lot of room for improvement, while Paul Pogba, as iterated earlier, has found some semblance of consistency in his game.

Harry Maguire, too, has recovered from a sluggish start to the season and has more often than not been a rock at the back for Manchester United, while Fred and Scott McTominay have continued to carve out a place for themselves in the side. Edinson Cavani’s impact has been pleasantly surprising as well, but one player who has managed to positively shock fans and neutrals alike is Luke Shaw.

For years, Shaw was seen as a perennial underachiever at Manchester United, having struggled to come out of his long-term leg injury. Several short-term fitness issues continued to hamper his progress at Old Trafford and the Englishman constantly failed to perform consistently in the red of Manchester United. However, that all has changed this season.

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Perhaps, it is the arrival of Alex Telles that has pushed Shaw to raise his game. Maybe it is the fact that he has just worked hard enough to go some way in fulfilling his tremendous potential. Whatever be the reason, Shaw is now one of the most important players in the Manchester United first-team setup, with United legend Denis Irwin hailing him as the best left-back in the league.

The statistics show that Shaw is not only an able defender now but also the most creative left-back in the Premier League at the moment. In fact, among defenders to have played over 900 minutes of top-flight football this season, no one has delivered more key passes per game than Shaw (2.2), while only Andrew Robertson has created more big chances (8) than him (7) this term.

Among Manchester United players, only Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have more assists, while Shaw is second in the expected assists metric. Over the course of the season, Shaw has created an impressive 42 chances while playing 443 forward passes. Combine that with his ever improving defensive output and it suffices to say that Manchester United are poorer without Shaw in the side as things stand. What a turnaround for the Englishman!

The Big Challenge

To maintain their push for the Premier League title, however unlikely it may seem, while also consolidating their place in the top four when the gruelling UEFA Europa League schedule kicks in. Indeed, Manchester United’s relegation to the second tier of European football brings with itself a big challenge.

For years, it has been clear how a run deep into the knockout stages of the Europa League affects a team in their league campaign, as they have very little time for rest and recovery between games. Manchester United experienced that first-hand in the 2016/17 season, when they went on to win the competition but finished sixth in the Premier League.

Last season, that did not turn out to be the case as the Europa League only resumed once the domestic campaign had ended for every club. However, in a season that has been as tightly squeezed as ever, fatigue will invariably start to play a part if Manchester United remain alive in each of the three competitions they are currently in contention for.

Can Solskjaer oversee a triumphant Premier League campaign with Manchester United this season? (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Can Solskjaer oversee a triumphant Premier League campaign with Manchester United this season? (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Having said that, Solskjaer does have enough squad depth to efficiently rotate his troops once the Europa League Round of 32 begins. The competition should indeed give the likes of Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles, Dean Henderson, Axel Tuanzebe and others the chance to get some much-sought minutes while staking claim for regular game-time in other competitions as well.

As far as their Premier League campaign is concerned, are yet to face four of the other five ‘Big Six’ teams in the second half of the season, with tricky tests against the likes of Leicester City, West Ham United and Aston Villa also beckoning them.

With Chelsea already showing signs of improvement under Thomas Tuchel, Manchester United have no room for error. Manchester City, meanwhile, continue to slip away and it will be imperative for United to not let their neighbours get out of sight and wait to pounce on any slip-ups by the current leaders. If not, they could well be looking over their shoulders as well.

Predicted Finish in 2020/21 Season: 2nd

Yes, Manchester United have come across a bit of a hurdle in the past few weeks, with inconsistency starting to creep in. Bruno Fernandes’s form was a worry for a while, but it looks like it was just a blip, with the Portuguese slowly but surely getting back to his best. The key for Manchester United will be to get Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to perform to their potential.

If they do so, then Manchester United will surely nail down the second spot in the standings at the very least, especially considering the growing influence of Edinson Cavani and Luke Shaw. Having said that, with Liverpool faltering a great deal in the defence of their title and with Leicester City set to embark on a similar Thursday-Sunday schedule as them, Manchester United should seal their current position.

Challenging for the Premier League title, though, could be a tall order, considering Manchester City have been nigh on unstoppable lately, despite the absence of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero. Once the formidable duo return, City should run away with the title, with Manchester United finishing runners-up for the second time in four seasons.

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