When Manchester United signed Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James in 2019 nobody expected them to challenge for the title. A year later, when Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani were added to the January addition of Bruno Fernandes they were a step closer, but still a long shot.
Now, with deals for Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho done with a month of the window still to go, it feels like there will be a disappointment if United don’t lay down a serious challenge for a 21st league title. The next four-and-a-half weeks could bring more arrivals, maybe a significant departure, but in what looks like a competitive title race, United should be right there.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called this a “rebuild” when he got the United job. On Saturday he stressed there will always be room for improvement, but did admit that this was now very much his Manchester United.
“With the decisions we made a couple of seasons ago we knew this was gonna be a rebuild and closer to a team I envisaged, attacking flair, pace, defensive solidity,” he said.
That rebuild began with a focus on youth but in spending a potential £43million on a 28-year-old centre back, the focus has shifted subtlety from building a team to win in the future to building a team to win in the here and now. It’s more than 1,500 days since United last won a trophy. If they emerge trophyless from this season it might be difficult for Solskjaer to continue to oversee the progress he’s begun.
When he spoke to reporters after the draw with Brentford at Old Trafford he gushed with delight at the business done so far and in explaining the deal to sign Varane from Real Madrid, his comments showed how ambitions had changed, that these signings were as much about this season as the ones to come.
“As I’ve said before, every manager would be happy the sooner and the earlier the deals are done. This year we’ve managed to get it sorted, the two we’ve got in will make a huge difference for us, both this season, short-term, but also long-term,” he said.
“Raphael is into is in his prime, he’s the same age as Harry, a year older than Eric and a couple years older than Victor, so there I’ve got a fantastic group of centre-backs.
“With Jadon, with the young forwards we’ve got, it’s exciting. As a manager, you can’t ask for more backing when you’ve got these two in as early as we have.
“We’ve scrambled before towards end of the window and we’re in a good position. Pre-season is always difficult in a championship year, never mind in a pandemic, with quarantine and isolation.”
United’s business this summer has certainly shown a heightened ambition. For several years their approach to the summer had followed a fairly similar pattern; invest when outside the top four and be cautious when Champions League football is secured. In this window they clearly see last season’s second-place finish as a springboard to immediate success.
So they have fixed one problem position with Sancho, who at 21 has improvement in him but is already a proven performer on the biggest stage. Perhaps the biggest issue has been at the back and the decision to sign a player in his prime in Varane, a 28-year-old on a four-year contract, with little resale value, is a deal that shows Solskjaer and United know what they need to take the next step.
This season looks like potentially being a four-horse race at the top of the Premier League and it’s set up to be a fascinating season. United’s approach in the window and Solskjaer’s comments show that at Old Trafford there is only one position they are targeting in 2021/22: first.
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