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Premier League 2020-21 preview No 13: Manchester United

United need to improve again and there are plenty of questions facing Ole Gunnar Solskjær as the season approaches

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 4th (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 3rd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 11-1

Can United really better last season’s third position? How will the Harry Maguire affair affect the side’s ability to improve? Because this is what has to be achieved in 2020-21 for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to be able to point to his team’s trajectory remaining on the up following the rise from sixth in 2018-19.

Yet to do so United must surely somehow finish ahead of one of Liverpool – who were 33 points their superior last season – and Manchester City, who were 15. If it proves impossible then United must finish third again having genuinely challenged for the championship until the latter stages.

Dean Henderson aiming to oust David de Gea as Manchester United’s keeper Read more

In this bid Jadon Sancho’s (still) hoped-for arrival from Borussia Dortmund would cast him as D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood in attack: a formidable proposition. Yet there is a case for the 20-year-old, actually, being the wrong marquee signing given that the more vital issues occupying Solskjær’s inbox are defence and a lack of depth.

When Bruno Fernandes’s 12 goals (following his arrival in the winter window) are added to those returned by Martial, Rashford and Greenwood, Solskjær’s front four delivered 73 last term. As this total can be expected to improve – Fernandes will have half a-season more to increase his tally, for one – then Sancho’s intended £100m purchase hardly appears the best use of funds. Instead a centre-back with the pace of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly might be a better recruit, while the manager also looks to bolster at left-back and holding midfield. Without strengthening in these positions there may to be too many uncertainties. Donny van de Beek’s arrival from Ajax provides more midfield creativity.

Can Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw fly along their flanks and create an extra dimension? Can Brandon Williams step up if one or both falter? Will Paul Pogba bring his World Cup-winning form to United or his United form to United? His agent, Mino Raiola, has stated the Frenchman will definitely stay at the club – echoing what Solskjær has said – but can the midfielder be a bona fide, week-to-week force?

There are further posers. David de Gea and his apparent decline as a world-class No 1: can he arrest the slide or will this prove a headache that while not on the Maguire scale could still trouble the manager – what to do about a £300,000-a-week goalkeeper with three years left on his lucrative contract. The answer – in the short term – may be to drop him, decide whether Sergio Romero or the untried (for Manchester United) Dean Henderson can deputise and hope De Gea returns smarting and restored. Solskjær – perhaps concerningly – has answered questions about De Gea’s place by saying the Spaniard has impressed in training … only for the goalkeeper to make another mistake.

Then, there is Maguire. The United captain has appealed against convictions in a Greek court that include bodily harm and attempted bribery. The hearing may not be for a year – at least – so how Maguire performs with this hovering over him will be crucial.

All this points to the following formula for United to prosper: the dynamic front end has to be even better than last term to keep the ball away from the shaky back end. This is unless Solskjær can convince Ed Woodward to about-turn and spend on a Koulibaly or similar. Otherwise, boiled down, the Norwegian’s appears a similar strategy to Pep Guardiola’s for…

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