For the first time in the eight years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired Manchester United have momentum.
Their third-place finish in 2019/20 and second-place finish in last season’s Premier League is the first time since the end of the Ferguson era have United have improved in two successive league seasons.
And given the ambition they’re showing in this transfer window it looks like the club is determined to put that last step within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s grasp.
Too often in recent years it’s looked like simply being in the Champions League is the be-all and end-all for the Glazer family.
The last time it felt like they were heading in the right direction was in 2017/18 when they finished second, 19 points behind a virtually uncatchable Manchester City.
United looked like they were on the right track but at the same time it was clear they needed more investment to make the final step to catch one of the Premier League’s greatest teams. Instead, the window was so underwhelming it created irreparable divisions between Jose Mourinho and his paymasters.
Rather than seeing that runners-up finish as the catalyst to push hard to take the next step, United sat back and luxuriated in the Champions League cash it secured. The signings of Fred, Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant showed a desperate lack of ambition. United went from second to sixth and when they needed a ladder they landed on a snake and were back to square one.
Solskjaer’s back-to-back top-four finishes are the first time United have achieved that since Ferguson retired but rather than counting the cash that will bring after a pandemic that had a damaging effect on revenues, the club is backing the manager. It’s a sign of how the ambition has changed and the club has learnt its lesson.
This is a football club that believes it belongs at the summit of the Premier League but gone are the days when that can be achieved solely through astute management and a prolific academy. United have been playing catch-up for years and the only cheat code at the top of the league now is financial investment, or pray for a Leicester City-style miracle.
Last summer United secured Champions League football and had a solid, if unspectacular transfer window. There were mitigating circumstances with the pandemic at its height and clubs in the dark over when matchday revenue would return. Considering it didn’t return all season United were right to promote caution a year ago.
But they’ve survived the impact of the pandemic in a reasonable position and this summer they’ve started the window well with the £72.9million deal for Jadon Sancho. Borussia Dortmund’s demands were more reasonable than a year ago and with the price £35million lower than it was then United were happy to get business done early, giving Solskjaer his top target in plenty of time for the new season.
Now they’re pushing to sign Raphael Varane from Real Madrid. It would be an exceptional deal, adding another world-class player to the squad and pushing United closer to having a squad that can win the title.
Three years after United surrendered momentum with a transfer window that lacked ambition, they’re taking the opposite approach this summer. Sign Varane and one more player, be it a right-back or a centre back, and this will be United’s best window for years. That it’s come when they’re chasing the title and not seeking to reestablish themselves in the top four shows ambitions are finally changing at Old Trafford.
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