Manchester United might be one transfer away from a title challenging starting XI
Plenty of thought had gone into Manchester United’s return to an empty Old Trafford on Wednesday night and, once again, the club had done a sterling job in difficult circumstances in the banners that adorned the stadium and the fan mosaic that brought some character to the stands.
But it was a desperate shame that there were no spectators inside the ground to see one of United’s most complete performances of the season. The 3-0 win against Sheffield United highlighted how far United have come under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They were untroubled at the back and sublime going forward.
This performance deserved an audience of 75,000 fans, but those empty stands for a performance of total domination were another example of the lost revenue that every club is going to be counting for the foreseeable future.
United have stressed that they will be no different in that regard and already plans for the summer have had to be altered. Where once they were eyeing up three major deals, now multiple big-money signings are considered unlikely.
The good news is that on this evidence United aren’t far away at all from a starting XI that is good enough to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool on a regular basis. Depth might remain something of an issue, but this team is close to being ideal for Solskjaer.
After a wobble against Tottenham the defence was back to its best against the Blades, recording a 10th clean sheet in 13 unbeaten games. In midfield it was a performance of complete control, with Nemanja Matic a dominant figure and Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba adding the gloss. That was achieved without Scott McTominay or Fred, who both began on the bench.
In attack Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, now level on 19 goals for the season, combined beautifully. It was a performance that sent out a statement to Chelsea in fourth and Leicester City in third, that United are coming for both of them.
It also showed that numerous transfers this summer might not be necessary. Just look at the impact Fernandes has had in January for the way one new signing can transform the mood and confidence of a team. If Solskjaer can repeat that in the summer it could go a long way to setting up a challenge at the top of the table next season.
If United do only go for one significant addition this summer then on the evidence of the games against Tottenham and Sheffield United, it should be a right-winger. Neither Daniel James or Mason Greenwood quite made that spot their own and the impression remains that both might be better suited to squad roles at the moment, rather than starters, with plenty of development to come in both players.
United were devastatingly good in the final third on Wednesday night, but add in a winger such as Jadon Sancho and that front five, presuming Pogba stays put, could look as good as any in the Premier League.
The prospect of a front three of Rashford, Martial and Sancho, with Pogba and Fernandes pulling the strings, is enticing. It’s not much of a leap of faith to ponder the idea of that quintet firing United to a title challenge, at the very least.
In an ideal world United might want another midfield option or two this summer, perhaps another defensive option, but we’re no longer operating in an ideal world.
The good news for United is that they’ve lost none of that momentum they’d built up before the season was halted. It’s now 13 games unbeaten and the deeper this run goes, the more it begins to look like the start of something, rather than an unexpected high point of a reign doomed to failure.
Solskjaer wanted time and patience to rebuild United, but the foundations have emerged quicker than anyone expected. The mercurial impact of Fernandes has shown just how big an impact one player can have. Add a thrilling and dangerous right-winger, such as Sancho, to this team and United’s best XI suddenly look like they can compete with the Premier League’s best.