It’s official; Manchester United are back in the Champions League.
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:
OFFICIAL: Manchester United will be playing Champions League football next season.
Bruno Fernandes had the ticket. 🎟 pic.twitter.com/WcZ51IPBzK
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) July 26, 2020
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 got their man. Sancho is a phenomenal talent and one of just two players along with Leo Messi in Europe’s top five leagues to bag 15+ goals and assists, and when you’re sharing stats with the greatest player on the planet, safe to say you’re doing well.
But this dream doesn’t stop there, moving further back United 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 can deploy Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in more of a 4-3-3 shape, 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 at left-back. 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. Then at the heart of defence United will also splash the cash to bring in Kalidou Koulibaly to be the defensive titan they sorely need.
With the Senegalese alongside Harry Maguire and the 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.
Being more realistic about things: United probably aren’t going to sign a defensive midfielder. The club rates Scott McTominay highly and for some reason doesn’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 (although his lack of offensive production should really render him an oft-used back-up and no more) and Shaw, Ethan Laird and Diogo Dalot all able to cover there.
But United will still need a centre-back, as none of their options are ideal partners for club captain Maguire. Either because of injury woes (Axel Tuanzebe), lack of quality (Phil Jones) or too similar a skill-set (Victor Lindelof). And being realistic, Tyrone Mings of from Aston Villa would be a good fit. Mings has the pace that Maguire lacks, is also accomplished in the air and has the kind of steely leadership mentality that Solskjaer craves.
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.
Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Bruno Fernandes has taken 20 penalties in league and European competition.
He has not missed a single one. pic.twitter.com/uwptE8x14o
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 26, 2020
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, Nathan Aké comes into defence. A slightly more ambitious signing than Mings, the Dutch defender has a much higher ceiling and given Bournemouth were relegated he may not be that expensive either. Solskjaer was seen talking to Aké a few weeks ago, indicating that United were in the market for a left-footed defender. Aké being in the side also allows Williams to play on the right of defence, adding more pace, tenacity and tackling to the United defence.
Thirdly, Sancho will replace Daniel James in the front line, given Sancho has the skill-set to play the role James did but has infinitely more skill to set United on their way to victory. Other than this the shape will be as it was this season, with United’s midfield blocking off space before one of them (in this case the incredible Fernandes) breaking forward to thrust between two forwards who can split wide to attack the half-spaces. Then you’d have Pogba, Martial and Mason Greenwood to come off the bench, a genuinely deadly trio of subs that could change the flow of any game.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær wants a left-footed centre-back.
And if he can't sign Nathan Aké, we've picked out seven alternative LCBs in Europe's top five leagues Man Utd should start scouting. 🤓
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 9, 2020
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, Aké, Maguire 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.
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. Grealish may not make their absolute best XI but would allow for genuine rotation without really impairing their attacking potency too much.
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 Tuanzebe or Phil Jones, who you’d have to imagine wouldn’t both be injured at the same time.
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) and young Laird should see some minutes as Wan-Bissaka’s back-up. The young Laird is a hurricane of a full-back, driving forward and creating pressure at every chance.
Matic and Fred 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.