The Manchester United puzzle: What jigsaw pieces does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer need to get right ahead of next season?

The form of Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes et al ensured Manchester United will return to European football's top table next season, but the job is only just beginning for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

By Callum Davis Published: 4 September 2020 - 3.21pm

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It takes a lot to impress Paul Scholes.

In his time covering Manchester United as a BT Sport pundit, the 11-time Premier League winner was often left disappointed, depressed and disillusioned by his former side.

In one famous tirade following a goalless draw at home to Valencia, the former midfield maestro said Jose Mourinho was turning Manchester United into an embarrassment, describing the Portuguese as 'out of control'. Most recently he questioned the club's failure to sign Erling Haaland.

Fast forward to August, days ahead of their Europa League last 16 tie against LASK - live and exclusive on BT Sport 1 this Wednesday - and Scholes is once again a believer.

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"Is it time for a couple of teams to start worrying about this team? I have a hunch they might be already," Scholes posted to Instagram in the wake of United's 3-0 win over Aston Villa, their fifth in a row at the time.

After an erratic start to the season, the Red Devils hit red-hot form after the Premier League restart. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men travelled to Leicester on the final day knowing qualification fo the Champions League was in their own hands. 

In the end, a routine 2-0 victory secured fourth place and a return to European football's top table.

"I'm delighted," Solskjaer said. "We've achieved a Champions League spot, we've come from way, way behind teams and gone past them.

"The players have shown their qualities as a group. They've taken on board what we want, and they're looking more and more like a Manchester United team on the pitch."

The reality is that this is anything but mission accomplished for United: Solskjaer's job is only just beginning.

The Norwegian has put them back on the path to where they want to end up, but there's still a long road to be taken before Manchester United are once again at the summit of English and European football.

What does Solskjaer need to get right to make sure this end-of-season renaissance is not just a flash in the pan?

Recruitment

Sancho is Manchester United's number one summer transfer target and recent reports suggest a £90m deal with Borussia Dortmund is edging closer to completion.

How Solskjaer manages the integration of a big-money signing like Sancho will be crucial. 

If rumours of a £90m transfer fee are correct it will make Sancho the most expensive English player of all time - just 12 months after United broke the transfer record for an Englishman with the signing of Harry Maguire.

As a front three, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood have scored 61 goals between them this season, four more than Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

Sancho remains one of the hottest properties in European football and would undoubtedly strengthen United, but who drops out to make way for the former City starlet's arrival?

Greenwood finished the campaign with 17 goals in all competitions and has quickly made himself a mainstay in United's new-look line up.

Only George Best, Brian Kidd and Wayne Rooney - all with 17 - scored as many goals as teenagers in one season for United.

He also became only the fourth player aged 18 or under to score in three consecutive Premier League games, after Danny Cadamarteri, Michael Owen and Francis Jeffers.

Martial is another player re-born under Solskjaer.

Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho both struggled to realise the Frenchman's obvious potential but the ex-Monaco marksman has flourished under the former United youth team coach.

Indeed, since January, only Bruno Fernandes has racked up more Premier League goal involvements than Martial. 

All this makes it crucial that any summer signings do not upset the dynamic between United's blossoming front three, while talk of a move for Jack Grealish has cooled thanks to the form of Pogba and Fernandes.

Solskjaer will also be determind to wrap up any deal for Sancho before the start of this year's truncated pre-season.

The long-running pursuit of Harry Maguire last summer became a saga in itself and ultimately undermined Solskjaer's preparations, the Norwegian will be desperate to avoid a repeat scenario this summer.

United's need for reinforcements at the other end of the pitch will also be a major priority. 

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk transformed Liverpool into world, European and Premier League champions and United know they require more cover at centre-back to sustain a title challenge.

Eric Bailly has been unconvincing since signing in 2018 while question marks remain over Victor Lindelof's reliability despite an impressive restart to the Premier League.

The Pogba conundrum

How do you solve a problem like Pogba? A solution could be in sight.

For large parts of the year it looked as though Pogba's long-term future lay away from Old Trafford.

His decision to fly back to France to attend a charity match days after asking Solskjaer to be left out of United's defeat to Burnley in January because he “didn’t feel right” did not go down well with fans.

An injury-hit campaign has limited the France midfielder to just a handful of games but the World Cup winner has looked back to his best since the restart.

The 27-year-old has been perpetually linked with a move to Real Madrid to work under his countryman and idol Zinedine Zidane but there is a growing sense that the former Juventus star is enjoying his football at Old Trafford again. 

With just a year left to run on his contract, a decision on whether to stick or twist on the divisive Frenchman could end up defining Solskjaer's tenure. 

"We still have a contract with Paul. He is a fantastic person, fantastic player - one of the best midfielders in the world.

"It's a different team to the one he left when he was injured. Everything is miles better in that dressing room."

Fernandes has earned all the headlines in recent weeks, and rightly so. 

The Portuguese became only the seventh player in Premier League history to win the award in consecutive months but Pogba's role has not been overlooked by his manager.

"I think Bruno has come into the club and seen how many good players there are at Man United," Solskjaer said last Wednesday.

"We've helped him show his attributes as well. I think it's just been a good, little relationship blossoming that he can also feel that we're going to help him improve."

Pogba has bore the creative burden at Old Trafford alone in recent years and the team's struggles were too often blamed on the Frenchman. 

Not only has Fernandes eased the load on Pogba, he's taking responsibility off his shoulders, assuming penalty and free-kick duties to great success. 

If United are to live up to the early hype and pose a challenge to Liverpool and City's stranglehold over the league, keeping their newly-formed creative axis intact feels crucial. 

The David De Gea dilemma

The domestic season ended with a growing question marks around De Gea's form.

De Gea made his 400th appearance for the club on Monday night but a string of questionable performances between the sticks has intensified the debate on the Spaniard's long-term future. 

His role in Tottenham's equaliser in late June drew harsh criticism from ex-captain Roy Keane. 

"I am sick to death of this goalkeeper," Keane fumed at half-time.

"I would be fining him [De Gea] at half-time, there is no getting away from that. I would be swinging punches at that guy. That is a standard save for an established international goalkeeper."

With the spotlight intensifying on De Gea a number of potential replacements have been mooted. 

Recent reports have linked United with a move for Leicester City stopper Kasper Schmeichel, but Solskjaer is likely to look closer to home for an alternative.

13 clean sheets from 35 games for this season's surprise package Sheffield United has led to calls for their Man United loanee Dean Henderson to be given the number one shirt at Old Trafford next season. 

The 23-year-old is on loan at Bramall Lane until the end of the season but his assured displays between the sticks have led to talk of England call ups and a return to United as De Gea's successor. 

De Gea matched Henderson's Premier League clean sheet tally but the Spain international is proving less and less reliable between the sticks. 

Only Jordan Pickford and Newcastle's Martin Dubravka made more errors leading to goals in the league, while De Gea made two glaring mistakes in United's 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final.

The question is whether Solskjaer still believes De Gea is the same player he was.

If he doesn't, then Henderson may become the newest recruit in United's youthful revolution and De Gea the first big-name casualty.

Tune into BT Sport 1 HD  this Wednesday from 7.30pm to see if Manchester United can book their place in the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

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