MANCHESTER UNITED & EUROPA LEAGUE

With Manchester United playing another season of Europa League football, Soccer 360 Magazine Oli Coates asks whether the Red Devils are any closer to regaining past glories than when they won the competition back in 2016-17.

A year out of the Champions League is supposedly a brief aberration for a club of Manchester United’s size. However, the Red Devils have missed out on Europe’s premier cup competition three times in the six years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Take out their 2013-14 Champions League campaign which the Scot secured for them by winning the title in his final campaign, and the legendary manager’s successors have only secured qualification twice in five seasons.

Jose Mourinho identified the Europa League as a credible avenue back into the big time during his time in charge, and so it proved when United beat Ajax 2-0 in Stockholm to lift the trophy in 2017. The club continues to perform spectacularly off the pitch, consistently breaking financial records and seemingly garnering more sponsors and partners than there are seats at the club’s cavernous Old Trafford stadium, but the lack of direction on the pitch has been startling.

This summer, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done his best to move away from the quasi-galactico model that has proven highly unsuccessful since Ferguson’s departure, after United squandered hundreds of millions on big names, big transfer fees and even bigger wages. Those wages will continue to prove a problem, following David de Gea’s huge contract renewal and Paul Pogba’s reportedly astronomical demands to put pen to paper on a new deal, but the club appears to be heading in a different direction under their latest boss.

Solskjaer did his best to sanction a mass clear-out, with players such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and former captain Antonio Valencia shown the exit door. If United are going to stand a chance of catching up with Manchester City and Liverpool and return to their former glories, more departures are needed, as well as a raft of new players who possess both the talent and hunger to succeed in difficult circumstances.

Solskjaer has targeted young, British players in signing Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, and all three have made positive starts to their time at Old Trafford. Despite a smattering of mistakes towards the end of last season, the Reds still possess one of the world’s best goalkeepers, and their defensive unit is starting to look a lot tighter than in recent years.

It’s further up the pitch where United are experiencing their biggest problems. Despite all the investment, there’s a worrying lack of creativity in the final third. Juan Mata is the only attacking player who boasts the guile often required to break down teams that sit in deep, but at 31, the Spaniard is probably past his peak and doesn’t have the ruthless finishers alongside him to complement his style.

For all the money spent on this United squad, and after Anthony Martial’s injury early in the campaign, Solskjaer was left with the far-from-prolific Marcus Rashford and youngster Mason Greenwood as his two central striking options, with Jesse Lingard asked to deputise due to further injuries and illnesses. A damning indictment of the lack of planning and foresight, things aren’t much better in the midfield department.

The middle of the park has long been an area crying out for attention. United have never come close to replacing Paul Scholes, while more recently, Nemanja Matic has failed to fill the void left by Michael Carrick’s retirement. Pogba’s performances fall a long way short of the player’s much-vaunted opinion of himself, while Fred has offered very little to suggest he was worth anything close to the £50m-plus outlay United paid for his services.

Ander Herrera was allowed to leave on a free transfer in the summer following his contract expiry, leaving United incredibly short in midfield. Scott McTominay has done well, but the 22-year-old has precious little support around him at such a young age. With so many issues in the engine room and up top, United don’t possess anything like the quality needed to challenge for the Premier League title.

The Europa League is starting to look more and more like United’s level at the moment. Considering clubs such as Leicester City, Everton, Wolves and West Ham are appearing poised to threaten the top six places, Solskjaer may even have a job on his hands qualifying for Europe’s second-tier competition next season. The current state of affairs looks dire for Manchester United, but is there any hope for the club’s supporters?

The new direction would seem to suggest so. There are going to be bumps in the road and poor results with such a young team, as the likes of Greenwood, McTominay, Andreas Pereira, Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes are given the chance to prove their worth in the red shirt.

United are trying to rediscover their identity, which is something Solskjaer has been talking about since he arrived back at the club. Yet major question marks remain over the Norwegian’s suitability for such a big job, given his senior managerial experience amounts to two spells with Molde and a disastrous stint in charge of Cardiff City in 2014.

Solskjaer needs more help than he’s getting from above, with the club still no closer to appointing more football-oriented people to work in technical roles alongside the commercial arm. Until the structure is sorted, the haphazard approach to signings and managerial decisions will continue, with the buck stopping at executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s door. His position seems infallible due to his performance on the commercial side, and that’s a real worry.

When Ferguson was at the club, he effectively performed the role of technical director and transfer mogul, as well as manager. United have never looked like filling that void, and until they do, they will continue to trail far in the wake of their rivals, while putting themselves at risk of being overtaken by a host of other clubs.

Last season United finished 32 points behind champions Manchester City. They were the exact same number of points from the relegation zone, clearly showing the current chasm between the Old Trafford club and the Premier League’s elite. A title challenge isn’t going to come in the next couple of seasons at least, while winning the Europa League once again could be United’s best chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

EUROPA RIVALS

Manchester United aren’t the only Premier League team fighting for a Europa League place. Soccer 360 Magazine runs the rule over the Red Devils’ contenders.

After finishing five points off the Champions League places in sixth last season, Manchester United made their worst start to a Premier League campaign in 30 years. Their place in the top six is looking increasingly under threat, so who are the clubs looking to reel them in and leapfrog the Manchester giants this time round?

Leicester City

Brendan Rodgers has made an immediate impact at the King Power Stadium, with his footballing philosophy becoming clearer to see in the Foxes’ performances with each passing week. Leicester have made a strong start to the new campaign, showing their ruthless streak with their thumping 5-0 victory over Newcastle at the end of September. They may never lift the Premier League title again, after their miraculous triumph in 2016, but the Foxes could certainly break back into the top six this season, and even threaten the Champions League places once again.

Wolves

They made a slow start to the season, but Nuno Espirito Santo guided his team to seventh last term on the Wanderers’ return to the English top flight. Wolves finished the campaign nine points behind United, and they strengthened once again in the summer. With a clearly defined style, an array of talented players and two victories and a draw against United in league and cup last term, Wolves look like they’re back in the Premier League to stay, and have designs on the upper echelons of the table.

Everton

Like Wolves, the big-spending Toffees endured a poor start to the campaign despite huge expectation that they’d kick on and impress this year. However, Marco Silva has a lot of talent at his disposal, and it seems like he’ll continue to be backed in the transfer market. The Everton boss needs his strikers to start hitting the back of the net more regularly, but if they do, the Merseysiders will catapult themselves up the table and put themselves into the European picture in the process.

West Ham

Consistency is going to be the key for the Hammers, but Manuel Pellegrini’s side showed their potential as they eased to a comfortable 2-0 victory over United in late September, making it back-to-back victories over the Red Devils at the London Stadium. The Irons splashed some serious cash on the likes of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals over the summer, and responded brilliantly to their crushing 5-0 defeat at home to Manchester City in their opening fixture of the season. They might not have the squad to last course and distance, but if they can keep their main men fit and firing — like Leicester did in 2015-16 — West Ham could upset the odds this term and break into the top six.

Ole’s adolescents

Manchester United’s future will be built on the youngsters pushing into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. Soccer 360 Magazine looks at the cream of the rop.

Following the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings, are we in store for the rise of Ole’s Adolescents, or the Sons of Solskjaer? Here we take a look at some of the young, homegrown talent Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been calling on over the opening months of the season, and run the rule over how they must improve to drag their club back from the depths of despair.

Marcus Rashford

Having burst onto the scene in early 2016 and with almost 200 appearances for United, it’s easy to forget that Rashford is still so young. Only 22 at the end of October yet already into his mid-30s in terms of international caps, the forward has been tasked with replacing Romelu Lukaku as United’s central striker, and firing in the goals the Red Devils need to rediscover their former glories. His finishing has improved but United’s No.10 must become more deadly in front of goal if he’s to continue to lead the line for years to come.

Andreas Pereira

He may be turning 24 on New Year’s Day, but this looks like being Pereira’s first season as a first-team fixture after joining United’s academy at the age of 16 back in 2012. After loan spells at La Liga sides Granada and Valencia between 2016 and 2018, the Belgian-born Brazilian managed 15 Premier League appearances last season, and is on course to comfortably beat that this time round. The midfielder has shown glimpses of his ability, none more so than with his long-range stunner against Southampton last season, but needs to become more clinical with his passing in the final third.

Scott McTominay

McTominay, 23 in December, was a real favourite of Jose Mourinho thanks to his tenacity, work rate and hunger to succeed. Indeed, the Portuguese named the Scotland international as his manager’s player of the year at the end of the 2017-18 season, despite the youngster only making 13 Premier League appearances over the course of the campaign. McTominay’s stock has continued to rise under Solskjaer, putting together a consistent run of starts and becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. There’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, but his well-taken goal against Arsenal at the end of September showed plenty of confidence. Add some more quality alongside him in midfield and McTominay could become a mainstay in the team over future seasons.

Axel Tuanzebe

Victor Lindelof has nailed down his position as Solskjaer’s preferred partner for Harry Maguire, but there’s a clamour among many United supporters for Tuanzebe to be given his chance in central defence. Having captained his age group teams, the Congo-born youngster was handed the armband in September’s League Cup tie with Rochdale, despite only turning 22 in mid-November and Paul Pogba being in the side. Tuanzebe impressed on loan at Aston Villa in the Championship last season, and may need to bide his time, but his athleticism, reading of the play and confidence on the ball could catapult him into the starting XI should Lindelof’s frailties continue to manifest themselves.

Mason Greenwood

It’s rare for an academy product to come into the Manchester United team with so much expectation heaped onto their young shoulders. Having only turned 18 at the start of October, insiders at Old Trafford have been getting very excited about Greenwood for a number of years, and the forward looks set to live up to the expectation. Unerring in front of goal, Solskjaer has even claimed that Greenwood is the best finisher at the club, and the United boss knows a thing or two about that. Helped by the exits of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, he needs to keep his feet on the ground, continue working hard and his chances will come.

Tahith Chong

Another youngster who’s been hotly tipped to make the step up to the first team since joining United as a 16-year-old three years ago, Chong is instantly recognisable thanks to his bouncy mop of hair. To become known for more than that, he needs to convert his chances in the first team into key contributions. With a tidy turn of pace and ability to go past defenders, Chong needs to become more confident in replicating the things he does for United’s under-23 side in order to become a first-team regular.

Angel Gomes

Godson of former United winger Luis Nani, a 16-year-old Gomes became the Reds’ youngest debutant since Duncan Edwards back in 1953 when he came on for Wayne Rooney in 2017. Solskjaer’s policy of promoting youth should help him get the odd chance here and there this season, and he’s already shown his confidence when stepping up. Like Chong, he may need to bulk up a little in order to stand up to the rigours of Premier League football, but Gomes has lovely feet and a low centre of gravity that makes him tough to knock off the ball.

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