It has been an encouraging start to the season for Manchester United, picking up 4 points from a possible 6 in what many would consider difficult fixtures. There is still uncertainty surrounding the quality at Solskjaer’s disposal however, and with the Lukaku money burning a hole in the Old Trafford pocket, we take a look at what the twenty-time league winners need and whether the youngsters can once again provide the answers in Manchester.
The departure of the Red Devils Belgian number 9 for £75 million left many fans excited at the prospect of a superstar replacement. The big money arrival never came but perhaps that shouldn’t come as a disappointment or a shock as United seem to have reverted to their traditional ways of promoting youth from their famed academy.
The man charged with replacing Lukaku is 17 year-old Mason Greenwood, Solskjaer claimed during pre-season, “You see a talented boy there and he’s got every opportunity to make it as a Man United player.” The Norwegian boss recently stated that Greenwood is “more of a natural finisher than them two”, when talking about star strikers Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Heavy praise indeed for a boy yet to make his first competitive start for the club. With Alexis Sanchez’s ill-fated spell in Manchester expected to be over in the coming days and the English transfer window shut until January, it could fall to another inexperienced youngster to pick up the mantel. United haven’t had a natural right-winger for many years now, the likes of Mata and Lingard have put a shift in out wide but are a far cry from the wingers Old Trafford are used to.
Rashford, Martial and James can all play ahead of Wan-Bissaka but prefer the opposite flank, so could it be time for flying Dutchman, Tahith Chong, to get his chance? His agent has recently come out and said that his client, “does not want to be loaned, but (he wants) to fight for his chance at Manchester United.” With United’s attacking options suddenly looking a little thin after the summer exits, it could be a perfect opportunity for Greenwood and Chong to establish themselves as future stars.
Solskjaer appears to be playing Paul Pogba slightly deeper in midfield next to the impressive Scott McTominay, leaving a place in the ‘number 10’ role up for grabs. In the opening two weekends of the season United have tried Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard in the attacking midfield position but neither fully grasped their chance. Whilst the Old Trafford club were heavily linked with numerous creative playmakers in the summer, including Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen, a move failed to materialise, leaving the door ajar for one of the current squad.
As we have previously mentioned Pereira and Lingard’s early season performances left a lot to be desired and although both still have a lot to offer, the long season ahead involving Thursday nights in the Europa league along with Juan Mata’s tendency to play a bit-part role, leaves room for Angel Gomes to stake a claim. The 18 year-old has played a starring role in United’s youth teams over the past few seasons and made a big impression on the senior coaching staff with his technical ability during pre-season, most notably scoring a great goal against Tottenham. Now could be the ideal time for the pint sized midfielder to make the leap into the first team and ease Solskjaer’s midfield conundrum.
Another academy player that could be ready for the step up is centre back Axel Tuanzebe. The 6ft 1 defender had an impressive loan spell at Aston Villa last season, helping them win promotion back to the top flight via the play-offs and already seems to be a key part of the gaffer’s plans at United this campaign, featuring on the bench in both of the opening Premier League matches. The Old Trafford faithful have grown tired of Smalling and Jones and Eric Bailly has picked up another long term injury and whilst continuity at the back is key, the 60+ match season that United hope to have will leave plenty of opportunity for the Englishman.
So perhaps United don’t need much in the near future with a plethora of young talent coming through, James Garner and Ethan Laird being other notable mentions, but the gap to Liverpool and City cannot be ignored. It will take several years for these teenagers to hit their peak years and compete on the same level as Sterling, Firmino, Salah and Silva and the board in the red half of Manchester need to ease their transition with the addition of world-class talent.
The one area that looks a particular weakness in the current side is the defensive midfield position, vacated by the out of favour Nemanja Matic. The former Chelsea mans performances wavered last season compared to his first year in red and although McTominay has filled it well, he is arguably more of a ball winning number 8 that a modern, deep lying playmaking number 6. A lot of emphasis surrounds the so called ‘pivot’ position as they are instrumental in breaking up opposition play and kick starting attacks whilst also dictating the tempo of the match. Fernandinho has excelled at the role for many years before being replaced by Rodri this summer and Fabinho impressed after eventually winning Klopp’s trust around Christmas time.
Portuguese talent Florentino Luis of Benfica has caught admiring glances from around Europe, as has Sandro Tonali who plays his football in his native Italy for Brescia. Whilst neither have much top flight experience (Tonali won promotion to Serie A with Brescia last season) both have been touted as top-class operators and have been linked with Europe’s top teams. If Solksjaer would prefer to add more experience to his young side that had an average age of only 24 years and 227 days on the opening weekend, then Leicester enforcer Wilfried Ndidi may be the man. Despite only being 22 the Nigerian has played over 50 Premier League games for the foxes and has been a consistent performer. Although Ndidi does still have a mistake in his locker as the recent Chelsea game showed, he has the character and appetite to constantly improve, showing his resilience in the same match by netting the equaliser.
United will be aiming for a top four finish as a minimum this season, whilst being wise enough to know a title challenge is probably a step too far. The early signs of this campaign are bright and with the young talent that is coming through it could only take two or three top signings to return the Red Devils to where they belong.