LEICESTER, England — When the 2019-20 Premier League season is reviewed with a glance at the history books, it will look as though Manchester United made easy work of qualifying for the Champions League. After all, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guided his team to third — the best of the rest after Liverpool and Manchester City — and they ended the campaign with a four-point cushion between themselves and fifth-placed Leicester in the race for that crucial top-four finish.
They say that the league table never lies, but on this occasion it might have been slightly economical with the truth.
United have struggled all season long to climb into the Champions League spots and, after drawing at home to Liverpool on Oct 1, Solskjaer’s team had entered the Old Trafford record books for the wrong reasons by recording the club’s worst start to a season since the Premier League began in 1992. But a Premier League season is 38 games long and United have timed their run to perfection.
Having climbed into the top four after their 37th game (a 1-1 draw at home to West Ham), United confirmed third place with their 2-0 win at Leicester on the final day. A 70th minute Bruno Fernandes penalty, followed by a freak second goal in the 98th minute when Jesse Lingard capitalised on a mistake by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, secured victory for United in a game that Leicester needed to win to deny their opponents a Champions League spot.
“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.”
While Solskjaer and his players — along with the directors in the stand — rightly celebrated the win which puts United back into Europe’s premier competition, the truth is that it is anything but mission accomplished for the club. Solskjaer has merely taken United back to base camp in their attempts to return to the summit of the game, both in England and Europe, after a seven-year drift since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
It’s true that United have competed in the Champions League since Ferguson walked away, but they have been participants rather than contenders. Unlike Liverpool, City and even Tottenham, who reached the final in 2019, United have never looked like challenging Europe’s best sides in the post-Ferguson era, and Solskjaer’s team is unlikely to restore the club’s old reputation as a Champions League superpower next season. But the crucial element for United is that they are back among the best again, which gives them the opportunity to accelerate their route back to the top.
Had United lost at Leicester, who saw a Jamie Vardy header hit the crossbar prior to Fernandes’s opener, another campaign in the Europa League would been like being stuck in the mud while their domestic rivals pulled further away. But by being able to contemplate trips to Barcelona and Juventus rather than Astana and Belgrade, both of whom were United’s schedule in the Europa League last season, Solskjaer can look to recruit new players with the promise of Champions League nights in the next campaign.
United’s finances will also be boosted substantially by being in the Champions League too, so they now have the platform on which to build again. They cannot waste it.
Sunday’s win at Leicester, and the recent performances against Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Ham — not to mention the FA Cup semifinal defeat against Chelsea — all exposed the lack of depth within Solskjaer’s squad. The Norwegian’s first XI can take on and beat any team in England, but beyond that, the cupboard is worryingly bare in terms of Manchester United quality.
Solskjaer will add to his squad this summer — Jadon Sancho is the prime target — but he needs quantity as well as quality. His team selections have shown that he has lost, or is losing, faith in the likes of Lingard, Fred, Juan Mata and Daniel James, while players such as Phil Jones, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira are unlikely to be at Old Trafford next season. It’s difficult to see United signing another seven to replace them.
Jurgen Klopp inherited a similarly imbalanced squad when he arrived at Liverpool in October 2015, and it took the German at least two years to remould the team into one that had a chance to compete, and one that has done spectacularly so since. Solskjaer can at least rely on a star-studded forward line of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood. He also has Fernandes and Paul Pogba developing an understanding in the final third of the pitch.
But that kind of attacking quality will only take United so far. It has arguably been the key to getting into the Champions League, but United need to be about more than simply being in the competition – their history demands that they challenge to win it.
That won’t happen next season, but being back among the elite is a crucial first step for United. By winning at Leicester, they have at least given themselves the chance to take it.