By the end of the 2020-21 season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have become Manchester United’s longest-serving manager since Sir Alex Ferguson. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho all tried and failed to win the club’s 21st title and whatever happens between now and May, it remains Solskjaer’s key ambition.
Since taking over from Mourinho in December 2018, the Norwegian has reshaped the mood and the culture in the dressing room, and after years of bouncing in and out of the Champions League places, he looks set to lead United to back-to-back top four finishes for the first time since Ferguson retired in 2013. But the next step is to win the league and this summer’s transfer window is another chance to fix areas of the squad which need an upgrade.
Solskjaer believes he already has a number of pieces in place, but he has made no secret of his desire to strengthen the team at the end of the season as he looks to close the gap with champions-in-waiting Manchester City.
How does the squad shape up in terms of fit for Man United’s future goals?
There aren’t many untouchables in Solskjaer’s squad, but Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford are as close as it gets. Fernandes has been phenomenal since arriving from Sporting Lisbon in January 2020, and there are already United fans who believe he should be captain. In little more than a year, he has elevated the team into something close to title challengers; he just needs a few more better players around him.
Solskjaer has invested heavily in Maguire — both in terms of the £80m fee paid to Leicester City in 2019, and by handing him the captain’s armband so soon — and he will remain a key part of the team next season. Rashford, meanwhile, has faced some criticism for his performances this season, but is only four goals shy of last season’s tally. Another five before the end of campaign and it will be his best season in front of goal. He’s starting to generate the numbers to back up the talent.
Solskjaer can point to a number of players who have improved this season, and he’ll hope it continues as United try to close in on Manchester City. Luke Shaw is in his best form since joining from Southampton as a teenager, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka is starting to look more comfortable going forward, adding more goals and assists to his game.
In midfield, Scott McTominay and Fred have been asked to play in a lot of big games and have proved they are valuable options. McTominay, in particular, has added much-needed goals from midfield this season. Up front, Mason Greenwood is getting back to his best after a slow start to the season while Solskjaer would like to keep Edinson Cavani for another year after the Uruguayan’s positive impact, both on the pitch and off it.
Playing for their places
Solskjaer put a lot of faith in Anthony Martial to be his first-choice striker at the start of last season, and the Frenchman repaid it with 23 goals in all competitions. But he’s struggled this season — partly because of injury and an early suspension, but also because of his own form — and has managed just four league goals in 20 games. United need a striker who regularly reaches 20 Premier League goals and Martial is running out of time to show he is capable.
A strong end to the season would help erase some of the doubts and also help cement Solskjaer’s summer transfer plans. Sources have told ESPN that while there remains strong interest in Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho, there is a growing feeling that an established striker might be a better option.
There are question marks, too, over who should partner Maguire at the back. Victor Lindelof is inconsistent while Eric Bailly has struggled with injuries and Solskjaer would ideally like a left-footed centre-back to add balance to his team.
David De Gea also has a fight on his hands for the goalkeeper position, but more because of competition from Dean Henderson rather than a significant dip in his personal form. Henderson, 23, signed a new long-term contract at Old Trafford in the summer but is desperate to be No.1 — at United or somewhere else — so he can begin to force his way into the England team.
Problems to solve
The biggest issue facing Solskjaer as he begins to plan his squad for next season is the future of Paul Pogba. The Frenchman will enter the final year of his contract over the summer and, according to agent Mino Raiola, has no plans to sign a new one. United haven’t given up hope of convincing him to extend his deal, but if Raiola is right, Solskjaer and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward have two choices: get a fee this summer, or allow him to walk away for free in 12 months’ time.
Solskjaer will want him to stay, particularly after watching his uptick in form in January, but if he leaves, the plan for the summer will need to be readdressed.