United need to show they're the greatest club in Manchester to go one better next season

·8-min read
Manchester United players look dejected after losing the Europa League final on penalties to Villarreal.
Manchester United players look dejected after losing the Europa League final on penalties to Villarreal. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Maja Hitij

By Ivan Lim

Manchester United came in second in two tournaments, finished ahead of former champions and great rivals Liverpool in the Premier League and still ended the season as the second-best team in Manchester.

It has been a very good season for the Red Devils, nonetheless.

After a painful end to their season in 2020 during which they appeared to struggle at every match, United were practically written off by supporters of their opponents when the current season started. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was every other team’s supporters’ favourite United manager, especially fans of the one managed by Jurgen Klopp. 

So, it was quite fun for me as a pretend Manchester United fan this season when the Red Devils finished the season ahead of Liverpool. While I can sense and appreciate the wonderful animosity between the fans of Manchester United and Liverpool, I have to concede that as a pretend Manchester United fan, I was unable to feel unsympathetic to the former champions when one injury after another, and an incredible run of six home defeats put their very chances of a champions league spot in serious jeopardy, never mind their title defence. 

Even though they’ve managed somehow to pull off a miracle by finishing third, it must still be something special to Manchester United fans – many of whom dismiss those crippling injuries as lame excuses – to see their team wrapping up their season ahead of Liverpool after the humiliation of watching them walk away with the title last season. 

Aside from finishing above Liverpool, here are the highlights of Manchester United’s season:

Their astonishing away form

Solskjaer’s side picked up a whopping 43 out of their total 74 points away from Old Trafford. They were the only side to remain unbeaten away from home the entire season. Only two sides have remained unbeaten away from home for an entire season in the history of English football: Preston North End achieved that in 1988/89 and Arsenal pulled that off in 2001/02 and 2003/04.

This amazing run away from home may be difficult to replicate next season. With hostile fans – albeit in limited numbers – making their return to stadiums in the new season, conditions will be considerably more difficult. But this challenge will probably be offset by United fans returning to the Theatre of Dreams. 

The Comeback Kings

In their away match against Tottenham Hotspur last month, Manchester United came from a goal down to win 3-1. Spurs’ Son Heung-min had put the hosts ahead five minutes before half-time, but goals from Fred, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood practically guaranteed a second-placed finish for the Red Devils.

“The message was clear from the manager. It was to keep calm, there’s no need to panic, we’re only a goal down. We’ve been in this position before, we know we’ve got good characters in the team and we have good players who want to take the ball against a really good team,” revealed Scott McTominay in his post-match interview. 

Indeed, being a goal behind has been a situation the United players have been too familiar with all season, and following that match against Spurs, they did again when they faced Aston Villa: Solskjaer’s men were a goal down at half-time as they had been at the Tottenham Stadium. And again, they managed to turn the game around to win 3-1 at Villa Park.

In all, Manchester United took 31 points from being a goal behind, and 28 of these were away from Old Trafford.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Liverpool fans’ favourite United manager made a shocking revelation just before the end of the season. In an interview with MUTV, the Norwegian boss said that he learned this season that he did not enjoy being defeated.

“I’ve learned that I don’t like losing,” he said, much to the relief of millions of Manchester United fans and to the utter dismay of Liverpool supporters who had never seen that side of him.

That winning mentality has finally surfaced and the team appears much happier to be playing this season. They must have been inspired by Solskjaer’s grim admission that he is not fond of being beaten.

It must also be comforting to see the manager more active on the sidelines this season. Whereas he appeared stuck to his seat on the terrace watching Netflix even while his team languished on the field for the greater part of last season, Solskjaer seems a lot more animated on the touchline now. 

Perhaps the Glazers, in a bid to save money, cancelled his Netflix subscription, forcing him to find entertainment elsewhere. Whatever it was, it has been great for the side.

Edinson Cavani

The Uruguayan has been an inspiration to old people all over the world. In fact, the striker, signed from Paris St-Germain, has been a model for active ageing. Although already 34 years old, Cavani has been very sharp in the box and has scored 11 goals for Manchester United in just half a season, becoming only the third United player aged 33 or older to score 10 goals or more in a single season. 

His determination to be worthy of the United’s No 7 shirt has earned him another season with the Red Devils. Hopefully, he’ll be able to outdo himself by scoring twice as many goals next season, and maybe live forever.

Dean Henderson v David de Gea

It was interesting how there was so much debate over whether the veteran Spaniard or the England prospect should be United’s No 1 goalkeeper. Then family matters gave Solskjaer an excuse to send de Gea away on extended leave, paving the way for Henderson to stake his claim for a permanent place between the sticks. 

And Henderson has acquitted himself well during this period, with de Gea not doing himself any favours during the Europa League final, letting in 11 spot-kicks and giving the title to Villareal when he failed to convert his chance. 

How Solskjaer must have wished he had a goalkeeper like Alisson, who knows how to score. Or at least stop one shot to end the contest. 

And it looks even more interesting now with United having just confirmed former Aston Villa goalkeeper Tom Heaton as a new signing. While Solskjaer remains coy about naming his No 1 for next season, I’d wager the loyal De Gea would be serving somewhere other than Old Trafford next season.

Next season

Will United improve on their form this season to go one better in 2021/22? Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally getting his act together after confusing the hell out of everyone with his tactics and team selection the season before? I’d love to see that happen. 

Manchester City – and possibly Liverpool or Chelsea – still stand in the way of a United title. 

United need to open up their coffers to reinforce so they can challenge their wealthy neighbours. Pep Guardiola has protested that Manchester City is a great club (it isn’t) with a great history (no, there isn’t one), and that they did not win the league not only because of money (of course they did, helped in a large part by Liverpool’s atrocious injuries), the reality is that for the only great Manchester club with a rich history to compete, they need to beef up their ranks. 

There is also the mouth-watering prospect (well, maybe not so to true United fans, who would probably spit at the suggestion) of a return to business as usual for Liverpool when their depleted backline finally recovers its original form with the return of their regulars, setting the season up for a proper fight between the two most decorated teams in the Premier League. 

Not a sustained recovery in the last 10 matches to clinch a place in the champions league. Not keeping the rest of the pack at bay for a comfortable second-place finish. But a proper fight, toe to toe, week in and win out, from the start till the end of the season. 

This season, I had the feeling that Manchester City had it easy with most teams. Almost every team, especially the struggling ones, would fight as if their lives depended on it when facing Manchester United or Liverpool, but crumble conveniently against money, I mean, Manchester City.

Hopefully, the lowly Premiership teams from Leicester and below would give City a harder fight next season instead of submitting like sex workers in the one just ended. They’d be playing against the champions, and a club which claims history and greatness.

Then let's see where they stand with a reinforced Manchester United and a recovered Liverpool.

Overall grade 2020/21: B-

This article, "United need to show they're the greatest club in Manchester to go one better next season", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.

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