Manchester United are once again in the final of the Europa League, but the club can’t squander the chance to kick on.
It is not the first time since Alex Ferguson’s arrival that there were signs of promise, and at many clubs there would have been a reward for the manager for similar achievements. Instead, under the Glazer family ownership, there appears to be a critical game of cat and mouse at play between owners, manager and whomever is deciding the transfer strategy at the club.
While most managers will be afforded the chance to improve if they show they can develop a squad, United’s owners appear to believe that by doing well in one season it gives them the chance to skimp on the next. It is perhaps Jose Mourinho’s time at United which demonstrated this method of operating most starkly.
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United won the League Cup and Europa League in 2017, giving them a way into the Champions League. With the club out of the top four, it was a sign that they needed reinforcements on a serious level in order to properly challenge for the title. Romelu Lukaku arrived, as did Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof. As a result, the club were able to push Manchester City for some of the season and secure a second-placed finish. When Mourinho described it as one of his greatest achievements, it was an indication that there was still much work to be done on the squad.
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Mourinho’s prize for improving the team was to be punished. Lee Grant, Fred and Diogo Dalot arrived. Two players not intended for an impact on the first team, and another who has proven that his contribution is minimal. It was enough to sour Mourinho’s time with the club and he started lighting metaphorical fires that were only put out when he was dismissed.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was his replacement, and he was given Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James and Harry Maguire. Over £120 million was spent - £80 million made available up front to secure Maguire - in what could be taken as recognition that the squad that Mourinho had was not enough. Bruno Fernandes arrived in a panic, because they had assumed Erling Haaland would join. That was enough for the Norwegian to impressively guide the club back into the Champions League, and a sensible transfer strategy was then key.
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Instead of a sensible transfer strategy, the club waited until the last minute to sign Edinson Cavani, took Alex Telles from Porto because nobody else was available, bought Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo for an undecided time in the future, and bought Donny van de Beek to punish him with a year on the bench. It was enough to secure another second place finish, despite not being the right winger that Solskjaer had actually asked for.
Should United come second and win the Europa League against Villarreal, it would represent their best campaign since the departure of Alex Ferguson.
In truth, the game is a one-off against Villarreal, and should not make too much difference to the summer plans. What Solskjaer needs is obvious.
The club need to give Maguire a partner, because as shaky as the captain is at times, he is evidently held back by having to be concerned by whomever lines up alongside him. The first choice, Victor Lindelof, appears afraid of the ball - which is a handicap when it comes to playing the sport. They also need to try someone new at right-back because, while Wan-Bissaka is often excellent in the tackle, he recalls early Gary Neville in his inability to comprehend the requirements of the offside rule, and offers almost nothing going forward. A little taller and he would be a decent central defender, but for now he is a limiting factor.
As well as that, the club appear set to make a more serious run at Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho. He would be a serious upgrade on Daniel James, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, or indeed anyone else in the squad who operates on the right wing. It might require a record-breaking fee to secure his arrival, and it is this tension that might throw off United’s pre-season preparations.
Too often, the club have dithered on their main target only to fall short and fail to buy them. At that point, they are left looking to assuage doubts by securing the most superficially credible targets still remaining, handily underpaying on original expectations but overpaying on the players’ inherent qualities. Victory on Wednesday would allow Solskjaer to put some pressure on, but he should not get his hopes up.
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