On Sunday evening, ahead of our disappointing 2-1 defeat against Sevilla, I tried to imagine just how nervous I would be had we not already secured Champions League football for next season thanks to our third-place finish. Of course we all wanted to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lift his first trophy as our manager, our first piece of silverware since last winning the Europa League in Stockholm three years ago, but the pressure was nowhere near what it could have been.
It’s unlikely Solskjaer saw it that way though. He was desperate to win a trophy but fell short at the final hurdle for the third time this season.
Finishing third and reaching three cup semi-finals can never be deemed a successful campaign for United, even with the context of where we were last season, or even at the turn of this year.
Midway through last season, Solskjaer inherited a team that were 11 points outside of the top four, after Jose Mourinho characteristically downed tools. By the end of the season, that gap had closed to five points without any new signings, but there had been the hope we’d finish higher than 6th before the team ran out of steam in the final months.
The club had reached two quarter-finals and were dumped out of the EFL Cup after losing in the third round to Championship side Derby County at Old Trafford.
Aside from just watching United play, which should allow you to see the progress we have made on the field has been vast, we jumped up three places in the league and got further in every competition. To improve on our final position while also having considerably more games to play shows we are heading in the right direction at least, even if we have nothing to celebrate.
Some supporters use our identical points tally to last season as evidence the club is not moving in the improving but that is far too reductive.
In 2011, for example, United won the league and reached the Champions League final, but did so with fewer points than they amassed the year before when they finished second. In 2000, United finished the season with 12 more points than we had the year before, but nobody would argue that illustrated we were considerably better that season.
As Roy Keane rightly said earlier this season, you don’t remember how many points you achieved but where you finished. United moved from 6th to 3rd in a season and that shows improvement.
Bringing in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka saw us claim more clean sheets than any side in Europe’s top five leagues this season, which feels like a fairly unbelievable statistic when you see how questionable our defending has been throughout the season.
While those two players are clearly a defensive upgrade on the likes of Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia, they are still a long way short of matching the players United had in those positions when they used to boss the Premier League. Maybe Maguire wouldn’t be caught out if he had a stronger partner, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, or Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, complimenting each other so well during our periods of dominance. He didn’t ask to become the world’s most expensive defender but it’s hard not to feel short changed when you see what £75m achieved for Liverpool’s defence.
The key arrival was Bruno Fernandes though who has been a revelation since joining the club. United have enjoyed the best form of any side in the league since he first played and it’s hard to remember a time when just one player had such an impact on the way a team played.
Had we signed the Portuguese superstar last summer, instead of haggling over the transfer fee and postponing the deal until January, this season may have been very different for Solskjaer.
In the final weeks of the campaign, United played the first choice XI in every league game, with the club desperate to secure Champions League football for next season. Had Bruno been a part of the squad all season, a place in the top four would likely have been wrapped up long before the final day, meaning more rotation would have been allowed to rest key players and prioritise the cups.
As Sunday evening’s defeat against Sevilla showed, Solskjaer simply didn’t believe the players on the bench could have a bigger impact that the tiring players he had on the pitch. The starting XI is stronger than it’s been for years but the squad is weak.
Teenage Brandon Williams has great potential for the future but, having started just 11 Premier League games in his career to date, he was called upon for both the recent cup semi-finals following Luke Shaw’s injury and he needed to do better for both of Sevilla’s goals. There’s no use in being overly critical of him for that though as he has so little experience of playing at this level.
Odion Ighalo was surprisingly useful in the cups this season, following his shock arrival on loan in January, but his goals all came against much weaker teams. He was probably still worth a punt earlier on Sunday but it’s clear there’s a big step down between United’s first choice three forwards and our only other reserve striker.
Still, after the limp ending to last season and the disappointing start to this one, we would have snapped the arm off anyone offering us a third placed finish. Getting so close to the final on three occasions is a hard pill to swallow but our problems are so entrenched they weren’t going to get fixed with just one summer transfer window.
The football is better, the morale in the dressing room is higher and the manager is invested in the club. Will Ed Woodward allow Ole to bring in the players he needs to compete for a title and lift silverware? That remains to be seen. We have the foundation of something good but need investment to make the team great. It feels like it’s going to be a long summer!