Cast your mind back to the 22nd January. The country was a very different place and we lived in much happier times. We could travel and see our loved ones at will, you could pop down to your local without a care and supermarket trips did not require this thing called a face mask.
For Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, however, life was a world of pain. That very evening, Burnley won at Old Trafford for the first time in 57 years, and there was rebellion in the air. It was a night that the already strained relationship between us fans and United’s boardroom powers that be reached boiling point. Solskjaer – already a man under immense pressure – looked to have reached the end of the road. Even the most ardent of pro-Ole supporters had started to lose faith in the former Norway and United legend. Another failed experiment. A legend and a nice fella, indeed, but one whom had looked increasingly out of his depth.
Ed Woodward, United’s hapless and much maligned CEO, was the man on the receiving end of much of the bile. Even for a man as thick skinned as Ed, he couldn’t have failed to notice. The national newspapers, as if mocking him by lining his route from Old Trafford’s reception to his office, offered a stark reminder of the plight.
That very same night, Leicester City won for the 15th time in 24 games, 4-1 at West Ham United to move third and 14 points clear of a United side stuck in reverse. The Foxes rose to 1-3 on to make the top four, United plummeting to 11-2 outsiders.
Yet six months on, and at the end of an exhausting and elongated season, the tables – quite literally – have turned. Manchester United are a Champions League club again. It was a campaign in which the Reds came to within two points of the relegation zone, yet ended it as the third best side in the land.
Surging through the field as their rivals faltered, Manchester United dragged themselves back into contention with a stunning unbeaten run, orchestrated by the arrival of Bruno Fernandes – the playmaker who raised standards, improved those around him and provided leadership qualities previously conspicuous by absence. After Fernandes debut on February 1 against Wolves, United still had that 14-point deficit to third-placed Leicester. We eventually overhauled them at the last, Brendan Rodgers men collapsing like Devon Loch to finish outside the top four positions that had been in their grasp for so long.
The playmaker has provided the missing link for this United side, building a bridge between midfield and a talented array of attacking armoury with his talent and forward-thinking style. He’s arrogant but in a way that just makes you love him. As United’s final day burst to the finish line showed, Fernandes has an impact and makes a difference even when far from his best.
Marcus Rashford’s return from injury, the emergence of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams and a reborn Nemanja Matic have also been key. There were wobbles against Southampton and West Ham, but United overall have been physically and mentally stronger, even if there is still questions over their psychological state of mind when the going gets tough.
I don’t want third place – find me a Manchester United fan who does. Particularly not when our two biggest rivals are first and second. Our rightful place is at the top of the English tree, United strive to win titles and have a trophy cabinet with 20 of the things tucked away in it as proof of that. We’ll only settle for the best. Any season when ‘they’ (I can’t bring myself to say it), win anything cannot be a cause for celebration, but the Old Trafford garden is certainly a great deal rosier. But third place is a start, a platform, and a heck of a lot better than the fare we’ve been served up in recent years. Even the most anti-United person cannot deny that something special is stirring at Old Trafford. For Solskjaer’s rebuild to truly kick into life, we needed this. A Champions League club is an attractive proposition for Europe’s finest talents – Jadon Sancho will be far more easily swayed, for one thing. Paul Pogba will want to stay and our presence in the competition will come as a huge financial boon as the club pick up the pieces left behind by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A top three finish and two cup semi-finals (with the Europa League still to be completed) – 2019/20 was the season in which Solskjaer’s United began to make their presence felt again.
Speaking of the Europa League, there’s no pressure on us now. It could have acted as a safety net, a get out clause, had United failed in their mission to get into the Champions League through the league. But now we’ve done that, the Reds can go out and simply enjoy themselves in that competition. It would be nice to win it and get some silverware, but with our main job done, it would come as a bonus rather than a requirement. With more wriggle room, Solskjaer could perhaps rest a few of his key men with the start of the next season less than two months away.
There will be those who will still not give United credit, and point to our points tally of 66 as evidence. For anyone who cares, that’s the same as our haul from last season. Sixth then, third now. But so what – the league table doesn’t lie. Read it and weep. On average, 66 points usually gets you fifth spot. It is typically a Europa League tally rather than a Champions League one. It is a number in keeping with many of United’s recent seasons – since Ferguson’s retirement our points tallies have been: 64, 70, 66, 69, 81, 66 and 66 again. Other than the anomaly of Jose Mourinho’s 81-point second place, all of those normally wind up in a finish between fourth and sixth. So despite the obvious trajectory, there is work to do and Solskjaer will look to avoid such a close race for the top four next season. We’ve closed the gap on City from 32 to 15, and bridging that further will be one of the key objectives in 2020-21. To do that, he’ll need sensible, future-proof squad building, similar to what he’s done already but unlike what we’ve seen in the past.
The ABUs will claim that United only finished third because everyone else stumbled, handing it to us, and that the Reds expensively assembled squad finished above a youthful, Eden-Hazard less Chelsea only on goal difference. A poor third place in a poor Premier League season. But we have been in this position before. This is not the first time since Sir Alex we have been in this position, nor the first time that Champions League qualification has been heralded as a turning point. It should be the last time a turning point is needed, but that would require lessons to be learned from past mistakes.
In each of the Reds last three Champions League seasons – 2015-16, 2017-18 and 2018-19 – players were signed for exorbitant sums to build a squad befitting of the competition, but few proved a success.
From Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to Alexis and Romelu Lukaku, all would be cast off and replaced with two years. Diogo Dalot has fallen out of favour and Fred has struggled to recapture his pre-lockdown form with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba Solskjaer’s preferred double midfield pivot. We cannot afford the same mistakes this time.
So what of the future? What now and where next for Manchester United? This has to be a start point – the first few bricks as Solskjaer continues to build his house. I’m not expecting to win the title next season, but we should look to improve further. I don’t just want us to be fighting for the top four again. Can we bloody some noses, get in amongst the main contenders and narrow the gap to the top two? Could we perhaps come in between them, get second rather than third? United finished more than 30 points behind the champions, so can we cut that gap to 20, maybe 15? This might all sound defeatist for a club that – in the words of Sir Matt Busby – strives for perfection. But this is a project and a process that will require baby steps, one gradual upward movement at a time. Realism and patience is required.