Devilishly Good: Are Manchester United Ready To Win A Trophy?

This image is a derivative of red devils by William Brawley (CC BY 2.0)

Things are finally starting to feel right at Old Trafford again.

Not only have the fans returned but the excitement surrounding Manchester United’s on-field product is well and truly back.

Their 5-1 win against Leeds was perhaps a taste of what’s to come as they outgunned their long-standing rivals, much to the delight of a fanbase yearning to get back to their glory years.

Although it may be a small sample size, United were – as described by The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson – “a study of effervescent and powerhouse football.”

After so many years of meddling in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, have United finally turned a corner, or is this another false dawn?

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Pogba & Bruno

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have finally unlocked the full potential of United’s dynamic duo.

On the weekend, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes were – for a lack of a better term – simply unplayable.

The French midfielder was United’s chief conductor, registering a whopping four assists while Fernandes was the benefactor up-top scoring a hat-trick.

Ever since Fernandes arrived in January 2020, United have always been a stronger, more formidable unit when the duo has been on the park – with the Portuguese midfielder seemingly the perfect team-mate to partner with the enigmatic Pogba.

Their chemistry was on full show as they dovetailed and interchanged – seemingly knowing where each-other were in each phase of attack and playing with an almost telepathic bond.

To the credit of Solskjaer, who has long been criticised for his perceived tactical ineptitude - his decisions on the team-sheet ultimately gave Pogba and Fernandes the license to roam.

By going with the much-turned-to ‘McFred’ (Scott McTominay and Fred) combination in midfield, it freed Pogba of defensive responsibility – allowing him to focus solely on causing havoc in the final third on the left wing.

Fernandes, who started centrally as a ‘ten’, also benefited from the ‘McFred’ tandem along with the off-ball movement of striker Mason Greenwood.

The youngster’s ability to drift wide and drop-deep dragged his markers wide and opened up gaps for the Portuguese attacking-midfielder to exploit in behind.

Pogba made the most of these exposed gaps with his surgically precise passing creating a game-high nine chances for the game.

The Frenchman has already smashed his assist tally from last season and has been backed by his team-mate to replicate and potentially beat those numbers week-in and week-out.

Can Pogba back this up on a consistent basis? That remains to be seen.

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Cavani & Greenwood

The master and the apprentice – United’s one-two punch.

Solskjaer faces the difficult task of best balancing the obvious quality he has at his disposal in the form of Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood.

With the former just emerging from quarantine, Greenwood has been given the early nod and the youngster rewarded the boss’ faith – scoring United’s second goal moments after Luke Ayling’s equaliser on the weekend.

Greenwood’s ability to stretch defences with his scintillating pace and superb off-ball movement has won plenty of admirers including United legend Rio Ferdinand who called him one of the “standout players” on the weekend.

His movement and synergy with the likes of Pogba and Fernandes helped United stretch Leeds’ defence with that off-ball movement opening channels for the latter.

However, Cavani gives United something different all together.

‘El Matador’ is one of the best strikers of the modern era, blending superb work-ethic, off-ball intelligence and ability to score from nearly anywhere – making him one of world-football’s more well-rounded attackers.

Despite being in the latter stages of his career, Cavani still possesses a superb eye for goal.

Last season, the veteran scored 17 goals and provided a further six assists across all competitions – showcasing his obvious quality in-front of goal but perhaps it’s the intangibles which makes Cavani all that more important to the United team.

Greenwood’s development as a footballer can come down to Cavani’s role as a mentor as one of the senior members of the squad who has helped him flourish in his short-time at the club.

The duo could work together with Greenwood shifting to the right-hand side but the arrival of Jadon Sancho may complicate things further with the latter seemingly poised to make that position his own.

With games coming thick and fast throughout the season it will be a curious watch to see how Solskjaer best utilises his attacking duo.

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Enter Varane & Sancho

United have obvious holes heading into this season and the signings of Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho help plug the shortcomings.

Ever since the days of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand’s formidable centre-back partnership, United have struggled to fill the gaps defensively and find a consistent partner next to Harry Maguire.

While Maguire is more of an aggressive, forceful defender, Varane is a more composed central-half – which is complimented by his ball-playing and aerial strengths.

The French defender completed 83.2% of his long passes last season and won 75.3% of his aerial duels – dwarfing that of new team-mates Victor Lindelof (65.7%) and Eric Bailly (61.4%).

Meanwhile, Sancho is perhaps the most exciting signing of the summer and looks set to make the right-wing his own.

Sancho’s greatest strengths are not only his dynamic dribbling and ability to put defenders into a tizz, but is solid in possession and at picking out a final-ball.

Last season, the English winger’s xG from shot creation was in the 88 percentile while also being in the 94 percentile for xG from ball progression – showcasing his strength in attacking build-up.

Incredibly, he was also the highest rated under 23 midfielder/forward in the Bundesliga for expected assists per 90 (900+ minutes played) with 0.48.

Oh, and we didn’t even mention that he loves a goal – scoring 50 from 137 appearances for Borussia Dortmund – including a team-best 20 goals in the 2019/20 season.

Despite making his debut off the bench against Leeds on the weekend, it’s only a matter of time before he usurps Daniel James – providing a significant boost to the right flank.

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Conclusion

United are perhaps more well-rounded than they have been in almost a decade.

The off-season additions help plug major holes in the side which has been complimented by the obvious improvement of key squad members.

However, the obvious need for a better defensive midfielder and also the question of their ability to break-down better, more well-drilled sides still linger over the side and whether Solskjaer’s side can adapt.

In saying that, they couldn’t have asked for a better start, though the jury will be out until the trophy cabinet gets fattened up.

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Nick D'Urbano

Nick D'Urbano is a freelance sports writer. Throughout Nick's career, he's worked for numerous multimedia companies in print, radio and TV. Currently, Nick covers the A-League, W-League, AFL and AFLW for News Corp Australia's Newswire along with co-hosting Twilight Football on FNR Football Nation Radio. Nick won the Antenna Award for the 2019 Youth Personality of the Year for his work on Channel 31's AFL talk show 'The Rushed Behind.

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