It’s hard to believe it now, but Manchester United’s transfer window last summer was at the time hailed as one of their best of recent memory. Their £ 115million splurge of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo set the tone for a season where a title challenge was expected. It looked like the jigsaw now only had one or two pieces missing.
What followed has been so bruising that United are now unlikely to even finish in the top four, but their three new signings have all had fairly reasonable campaigns, at least compared to their peers.
Varane has been a rock in defense, the only question mark over his availability. Sancho started slowly but now looks like United’s best player. There are question marks starting to form around Ronaldo but he has scored six goals more than any other player in the squad.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical failings set the tone for a poor season and now too many players are woefully out of form or have simply regressed. There was always a desperate need to sign a central midfielder this summer, but now United probably need four of five new signings.
A new right-back is required, a new striker, possibly a center back and at least two midfielders. But if last season’s spending was successful, it’s going to be almost impossible to match that if United don’t secure their place in next season’s Champions League.
They managed to sign A-list stars and top targets last summer, but the chances of bringing players such as Erling Haaland, Declan Rice or Jude Bellingham to Old Trafford without Champions League football to offer are slim to non-existent.
Not only will United suffer financially if they don’t play in the Champions League, but they will also be a less attractive proposition to the elite players they need to be targetting this summer.
Last summer’s spending hasn’t led to a title challenge this season but it has at least added to the quality in the United squad. Building on that will be impossible without a spot at the top table in European football.
For most of Ralf Rangnick’s tenure there has been a feeling that United will claim fourth, almost by default. They clearly have the best squad of those challenging and there have been doubts for much of the season over Arsenal and Tottenham.
But United taking control of fourth spot has become less likely by winning just seven of Rangnick’s first 13 games in charge. Failing to beat Newcastle, Wolves, Aston Villa, Burnley, Southampton and Watford is hardly the form of a team worthy of a top-four finish.
Any hopes United will raise their game now the difficulty level increases were also dashed during Sunday’s wretched 4-1 defeat at the Etihad. The remaining 10 games include matches against Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal.
It is Spurs who are first up and they will arrive having found some form, with successive 4-0 and 5-0 wins in the Premier League. Antonio Conte, overlooked by United in October, has found life difficult at Tottenham but it fits the narrative of United’s season that he could take his team above them by winning at Old Trafford.
Anything but a win will probably put an end to United’s chances of finishing fourth. They are a point behind Arsenal, who have three games in hand and are making a habit of beating the teams below them in the table.
Winning the Champions League remains a route back into next year’s edition, but United aren’t putting together the kind of performances required to really trouble Europe’s elite. They were fortunate to escape the Wanda Metropolitano with a draw and must still beat Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford to reach the quarter-finals.
One way or another, United’s performance levels must improve quickly if they are to be back where they feel belong next season. With only the Europa League to offer new recruits any new manager is going to find it hard to match last summer’s transfer window.
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