Manchester United had what can only be described as a mixed 2020/21 season, with reasons to be both upbeat and disappointed simultaneously.
There was improvement in the Premier League and the club reached a final under the leadership of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the first time after multiple previous semi-final failings. But a trophy still proved elusive and that alone will leave a bitter taste.
Here's a review of how United fared in each competition, as well as a reflection on the manager and the best and worst players of the season...
Premier League – 2nd
On the face of it, United recorded their joint highest Premier League finish since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, which also importantly represented an ongoing improvement on the last two seasons when they finished sixth and third.
74 points was also eight better than in both 2018/19 and 2019/20 - even if it wasn’t as high as the 81 from Jose Mourinho’s second season in charge in 2017/18. In the circumstances of this very difficult and overly congested season, any improvement is worth celebrating.
Is there an argument to say that United could have done a little better? They were impressively unbeaten away from home all season in the Premier League and, without fans until the final home game, were arguably let down by their form at Old Trafford in the end.
United did briefly lead the league in January and Manchester City’s final tally (86) was the first time in five years the title has been won with fewer than 90 points. Some may feel United could have got much closer, with key points dropped against Sheffield United, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Fulham in the second half of the season – victories in those alone would have yielded nine extra points.
But this was a season where depth was king. City built their unassailable lead by winning 15 games in a row over the winter and could swap players in and out at will to keep them fresh – only Ederson, Ruben Dias and Rodri started more than 30 league games for them, meaning the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and others were always well rested.
United didn’t have that luxury and therein lies the difference.
Domestic cup performance
Carabao Cup – semi-finals
United reached the last four of the Carabao Cup for the second year in a row, and for the second year in a row were knocked out by Manchester City.
Early rounds against Luton and Brighton were comfortably navigated, with 3-0 wins in each tie. Everton posed more of a challenge in the quarter-finals but late goals from Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial secured another win and another clean sheet.
In a bid to reduce fixture congestion, the usually two-legged semi-finals were cut to a one-off game, which was played at Old Trafford but resulted in a 2-0 City win.
Pep Guardiola continues to get the better of Solskjaer in cup matches, even though the United boss has a far superior head to head record in the league.
FA Cup – quarter-finals
United were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions this season by the eventual winners, with Leicester prevailing 3-1 in a FA Cup quarter-final tie at the King Power Stadium.
United had already beaten Watford, Liverpool and West Ham in the competition, but Solskjaer tried to rotate his team against the Foxes and the plan backfired.
It is a step backwards in the FA Cup from last season, having reached the semi-finals, and is a disappointment given that Leicester did go on to lift the trophy. But with improvement in the Premier League, it is perhaps a worthwhile temporary concession.
Champions League – group stage
Getting knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage was a big opportunity missed for United after working so hard to get back into the competition in the first place.
Nine points from the opening four games, including the thrashing of RB Leipzig and another famous away win over PSG, was a strong return. Qualification was in their hands in the last two games, but they were outplayed by PSG at Old Trafford and never recovered from conceding two early goals in what then became the matchday six decider against Leipzig in Germany.
Europa League – runners-up
Regardless of general improvement and a higher Premier League finish, the Europa League final was always going to define whether United’s 2020/21 season was truly successful or not.
United were mostly very good in the knockout stages against Real Sociedad, Granada and Roma, working a little harder against AC Milan, and winning the final against Villarreal could have ended a four-year trophy drought, while reinforcing that the current path is the right one.
But United were lacklustre in the final and played into their opponent’s hands. Too many of the same problems persisted, like conceding the first goal and later struggling to break down a deep and compact defensive unit, and the fact it had to go to extra-time and penalties was like a defeat long before David de Gea actually missed the decisive kick from the spot.
Bruno Fernandes has been a Manchester United player for less than 18 months and has already two Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards to his name.
His first few months to finish 2019/20 were remarkable, but his first full campaign in 2020/21 was at another level. He scored 28 goals in all competitions, led in assists, assumed a leadership role to the point where he captained the team in the Europa League final in Harry Maguire’s absence and generally improved his teammates through his demanding on-field presence.
Fernandes appears to have super human stamina and fitness because he has played a minimum of 50 club games for four seasons in a row, with the final his 58th of 2020/21. He would probably benefit from a rest this summer, but he will be at Euro 2020 with Portugal, who are among the favourites to win the tournament, and will likely only get a short holiday.
United fans had big hopes for Donny van de Beek upon his £40m arrival from Ajax last summer, and with good reason. His exploits during the Dutch club’s journey to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018/19 saw him nominated for the Ballon d’Or and having another goalscoring midfielder should have done wonders for squad depth.
Van de Beek even scored off the bench on his United debut back in September, but that proved to be the high point of his season. He only started four Premier League games, making 19 appearances in the league overall and didn’t really get much of a chance in Europe either.
As the season wore on, the Dutch international seemed to lose more and more confidence and there were times when he just looked completely lost on the pitch and extremely out of place.
United will hope that a summer break and proper pre-season can breathe new life into Van de Beek, although going to Euro 2020 with Netherlands probably won’t help in that respect.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does deserve credit for the overall job he has done with United. There is no question that the squad is in a better place than it was when he took over at the end of 2018 and he has been instrumental in trying to bring back a proper culture that had arguably been lost.
The problem is that the rebuild is still a work in progress and it might take another couple of summers to have fully assembled a squad capable of challenging for major honours is complete, if everything else follows on this current trajectory.
Equally, there are renewed question marks over Solskjaer’s tactical nous following the Europa League final. He didn’t make any substitutions until well into extra-time, although there is an argument to suggest that was because he didn’t trust the depth beyond his starting XI. He doesn’t have all the tools he needs, but the very best managers still find ways around that.
The situation is pretty much as it was before. Solskjaer is a decent manager and a popular guy, but you cannot help but wonder if this is now the ceiling and the baton needs to be passed on.
Decent but not outstanding and still significant room for improvement.