For a manager so adept at finding positives in the negatives, even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was struggling to put a good spin on Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace. The loss, and the nature of it, was emblematic of a disastrous summer for the club.
After a gruelling season like no other, Solskjaer prevented huge financial losses by guiding the club into the top four with a third place finish. A second season outside of the Champions League would have meant a significant drop in revenue from sponsors such as Adidas, while the Norwegian’s top transfer targets would likely have been out of reach.
The signing of Bruno Fernandes in late January proved the turning point of United’s season and evidence of the galvanising impact new signings can make, not only individually but collectively too. United lost just two of their final 23 matches of the season, playing the best football the club have played since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in an impressive end to the campaign. But that momentum vanished during a chaotic four-week break that saw captain Harry Maguire jailed, wonderkid Mason Greenwood sent home from England’s camp in Iceland, Paul Pogba contracting coronavirus and the arrival of just one signing.
Solskjaer can keep his anger at the off-field misdemeanours in-house but it was notable that the Norwegian did little to quash questions about strengthening his squad after the loss to Roy Hodgson’s side. The 47-year-old informed his board as early as February that he wanted at least three signings this summer, with a central midfielder, a left-back and a right winger considered the priority. Solskjaer’s fourth wish was for a centre-back but he felt the other areas were in more urgent need of reinforcements. Solskjaer and his backroom staff drew up two different lists of targets: one if the club finished with a Champions League spot and one if they did not.
That United finished third via their Premier League finish gave the club even more time to finalise deals for Solskjaer’s targets but the Norwegian was furious to enter the season with just one of those in his squad. A deal for Donny van de Beek was completed relatively quickly but the club were fortunate that a move to Real Madrid fell through twice and in truth United faced little competition for his signature.
United’s interest in Jadon Sancho goes back to January 2019, with Metro.co.uk exclusively revealing that Solskjaer had identified the England international as a priority target just a month into his time as interim boss at Old Trafford. A failure to secure Champions League football ended United’s hopes of signing him in 2019 but Solskjaer was certain the 20-year-old would join the club this summer.
That Sancho remains a Dortmund player with a fortnight left in the transfer market is a failure of United’s expertise at board level. In a summer when the traditional giants of European football are tightening their purse strings, Dortmund gave United a free run at Sancho by setting an August 10th deadline for the club to meet their £108m asking price for the winger.
In an indication of the club’s naivety, United felt the deadline was merely a strategic ploy to extract the largest fee possible for Sancho and the board decided to continue negotiations over a sum closer to £90m. United continue to work on a deal for Sancho but Dortmund are adamant that he’s no longer for sale and perhaps most important of all: the midfielder is happy to stay in Germany for a further 12 months.
The club’s lack of action in the market cast a cloud over their start of the season and Luke Shaw broke ranks to call for the club to strengthen, even if his place is under threat by a new arrival at left-back.
We are a very good group but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad. It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, then we must also do it to keep up with the others.” Luke Shaw after United’s defeat to Palace
Solskjaer is yet to speak to Shaw about his comments, in an indication that he not only echoes the full-backs thoughts but was happy that a member of his squad broke rank to force the board’s hand.
A deal for Porto full-back Alex Telles is progressing, albeit slower than Solskjaer would like. The 27-year-old has one year to run on his deal with the Portuguese giants and they would accept a bid in the region of £23m for the Brazil international, who has already agreed personal terms with United over a £75,000-a-week salary. Should a deal be completed, United will focus all of their efforts on signing a right winger. With a deal for Sancho looking increasingly unlikely, United will explore short-term loan deals.
Clearly, a lack of new additions was not the only reason that United lost to Palace. The club’s 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals was their final fixture of a season that lasted over 12 months but United were back in action less than a month later and it showed in their poor display against the Eagles. Solskjaer felt his side were the fittest they had been since his appointment upon their return from the league’s suspension in July. Given the unique nature of the club’s start to the season, the advice from Solskjaer’s medical staff was to adopt a light pre-season training regime that focused on a slower build-up of fitness rather than traditional ‘double sessions’.
But that decision left the squad looking severely undercooked against Palace and the decision to hold just one pre-season friendly – a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa a week before the restart – looks a mistake. Solskjaer, though, feels United should have been given at least an extra week off given their European commitments after the end of the previous Premier League campaign. United’s plans were hindered further by Covid restrictions, with players returning at different dates after featuring in Nation League fixtures in early September.