Football Features

Dream big & dead rubber: Five ways Man Utd could line up in 2020/21 Champions League

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:30, 17 August 2020

It’s official; Manchester United are back in the Champions League.

The Red Devils secured their third-place Premier League finish on the final day of the season, beating Leicester 0-2 at the King Power Stadium to ensure a return to Europe’s top competition.

This will be a welcome boost to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his side because it not only validates the job he is doing as coach (United turned a 14-point deficit into a four-point advantage over the last 14 games of the season) but it will greatly expand his transfer possibilities for the summer.

With that in mind, we had a look at five possible ways The Red Devils could take to the field in the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League:

The Big Dream

When you dream, dream big. Manchester United have been pursuing Jadon Sancho for a while now and in this line-up, they have paid up and got their man. Sancho is a phenomenal talent who slots in perfectly on the right of United’s front three. He’s one of just two players along with Leo Messi in Europe’s top five leagues to bag 15+ goals and assists in 2019/20, and when you’re sharing stats with the greatest player on the planet, it’s safe to say you’re doing well.

This dream doesn’t stop there: United will solidify their long-standing interest in Declan Rice, bringing the Englishman in to anchor midfield. With Rice’s talents at holding midfield and moving the ball on quickly, United’s 4-2-3-1 could be more of a 4-3-3 in possession, allowing Paul Pogba to drive forward and link with Bruno Fernandes, giving them more attacking fluidity without killing them defensively.

Speaking of defence, United will invest heavily at the back here, splashing out big money to bring Ben Chilwell in. Leicester‘s left-back fits the profile United want and he has the sheer quality to start instantly and be a huge upgrade over Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams. Then at the heart of defence United will also splash the cash to bring in Dayot Upamecano to be the defensive titan they sorely need.

The French defender has excelled in the Champions League for Leipzig and has the perfect skill-set to compliment Harry Maguire. And wthe impeccable Dean Henderson in goal (sorry, Dave) United will be a much tougher defensive outfit which should in turn allow their forwards to flourish as they be under less pressure to carry the side. Of course this is a dream because signing all four of these players would go way beyond even Man Utd‘s sizeable transfer budget.

The Realistic

Being more realistic about things: United probably aren’t going to sign a defensive midfielder. The club has shown in the Europa League that Fred can play well there, they also rate Scott McTominay highly and for some reason don’t realise Nemanja Matic is a liability, hence renewing his contract for three more years. They’re also unlikely to spend big on a left-back given the potential of Brandon Williams (and Leicester’s eye-watering price for Chilwell) and Shaw, Ethan Laird and Diogo Dalot all able to cover there.

United would still need a centre-back, but being realistic there aren’t many options that could be signed for a reasonable fee. With the majority of the budget having to go on Jadon Sancho, United will have to turn to one of the bajillion defenders already on their books. Luckily for them Axel Tuanzebe is a defender of immense talent who just needs games (denied him last season by injury) to show his worth.

The rest of the team would play out much as it has this season in a 4-2-3-1 shape where Bruno Fernandes pulls the strings. And even in the most realistic of scenarios, it’s clear United are going to go all-in for Sancho, so the boy wonder will still arrive to light-up the wide areas for United and form a deadly ‘front four’ with Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

The Big Game Ballista

Before the arrival of Fernandes, United used a 3-5-2 shape to devastating effect in the big matches. Using this system United smashed Chelsea and Man City on the break, took down Spurs and ran Liverpool all the way when the Reds were at their most imperious. So United will obviously bring it back in 2020/21, but with a few tweaks.

First, Henderson is in goal so David de Gea won’t be able to undo all the side’s good work with awful goalkeeping like he did in the FA Cup semi-final. Secondly, with no defensive signings United will have to adapt at the back. Lindelof can operate in the left-channel and on the right Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s phenomenal tackling and recovery ability makes him an ideal defender in a back three. With Wan-Bissaka backing up another wing-back (the promising young Ethan Laird), defenders would find it hard to penetrate down that flank.

Other than this the shape will be as it was this season, with United’s midfield blocking off space before one of them (Bruno Fernandes or Paul Pogba) breaks forward to thrust between two forwards who can split wide to attack the half-spaces. Then you’d have Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood to come off the bench, a genuinely deadly duo that could change the flow of any game.

The Diamond

Any side worth their salt needs tactical flexibility, so a diamond midfield would help United in games where they need to dominate midfield. This shape would be extra potent because of the emergence of Greenwood, whose relationship with Martial and ability to play in tight spaces and shoot with little backlift makes him extremely viable as a goalscoring threat. He’s played out wide in a 4-2-3-1 because he’s had to, but his best position right now would be as part of a front two.

So in this shape you’d have a back four of Williams, Maguire, Bailly and the mighty Aaron Wan-Bissaka with the full-backs given license to bomb on and provide width (even if it mostly tactical). Ahead of them the diamond is loaded with talent. McTominay sits and tackles anything that moves whilst ahead of him Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are responsible of collecting the ball in deep positions and driving it forward, and ahead of them and behind the strikers would be Jack Grealish.

Yeah, Grealish.

United have been linked with the Aston Villa captain for a while, and whilst at first it seemed as though he was to replace Pogba should the Frenchman leave, it’s increasingly obvious that even if Pogba stays (which looks likely) then Grealish is still needed. Despite Solskjaer‘s comments about the players needing to be fit enough to play every three days, the Red Devils cannot seriously expect to go through a whole season with just two central creative midfielders and if Sancho does prove to be too expensive, Grealish is a creative phenomenon that could be a decent alternative.

The Dead Rubber

Sometimes you do so well in the early Champions League group games that you end up with dead rubbers at the end of the group, matches that have no material significance to progression so you roll out the back-ups. Well what would United’s back-ups look like next season?

Obviously De Gea is in goal. It’s unlikely United would sell him this summer but rather allow him to compete with Henderson to be no. 1, and that is a competition the Spaniard would lose and thus be forced to be Cup keeper for the season. Ahead of him Lindelof would lead the defence next to Bailly or Tuanzebe.

Shaw is at left-back (Williams may not be left-footed but he has more burst and intent than Shaw does and that should win him a starting spot unless a left-back is signed) and Laird should see some minutes as Wan-Bissaka’s back-up as Diogo Dalot is likely sold. The young Laird is a hurricane of a full-back, driving forward and creating pressure at every chance.

Matic and McTominay hold midfield, whilst James returns to the side on the left. The Welshman has talent but is best used as a back-up or in specific strategic situations, but no doubt his pace could be used by Grealish playing as No. 10 and running the show. Greenwood would come off the right as he has this season, except with classic target-man Odion Ighalo leading the line there’d be even more onus to get young Greenwood into killer shooting positions.