Manchester United are on the cusp of mounting a genuine Premier League title challenge for the first time since their last triumph in 2013, with improved third and second place finishes in the last two seasons and key signings addressing previous weaknesses in the squad.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a positive impact on the club since he was appointed successor to Jose Mourinho, but the United boss still needs a handful of his existing players to step up their level this season to provide that all-important quality and depth.
Here’s a look at six United players who need to reach another level to make a title challenge possible…
1. Jesse Lingard
Lingard looks increasingly likely to stay at United after resurrecting his career with a spell at West Ham in the second half of last season, making him arguably the best loan signing in Premier League history for the whirlwind impact he made in east London.
Lingard is unlikely to be a regular starter for United – even at his best form in 2017/18 he was in and out of the XI as games dictated – but he and others can offer the kind of crucial squad depth that once underpinned the club’s glory years of the 1990s and 2000s.
Talent isn’t the issue because he has proven for both United and West Ham that he can make game-changing impact at Premier League level. But that isn’t something he was showing before his loan spell, leaving Solskjaer with precious few options and an over-worked first XI.
Fred is a good player and his improvement over the last couple of years has mirrored United’s renewed rise as a club. The Brazilian finally looks more settled and now needs to find a degree of consistency in his game to be the midfield anchor.
His passing is sometimes wayward and his shooting is often atrocious. But on his game, Fred is a tenacious ball winner and some more fine tuning, consistency and improvement has the potential for him to be United’s equivalent to N’Golo Kante.
3. Donny van de Beek
Van de Beek’s first season at United was effectively a write off. He lacked the physical fitness and strength to compete in English football and was never quite able to gain the trust of Solskjaer, resulting in only four Premier League starts.
After carrying an injury in the latter stages of last season, the Dutchman has worked on his fitness over the summer and has followed a new programme to add muscle that will better prepare him for a second go at establishing himself in the Premier League.
Like Lingard, ability is not the issue for Van de Beek and he may not start in United’s strongest XI, but squad depth is so important for teams to be successful and he needs to be able to step into the team on a regular basis to provide relief for others like Bruno Fernandes without a drop in quality.
4. Aaron Wan-Bissaka
QPR striker Charlie Austin was widely criticised for his overzealous crucifixion of Wan-Bissaka that went viral after the recent friendly defeat against the Hoops. But while it was a bit over the top and sensationalised for effect, it may not be without reason.
Wan-Bissaka is widely recognised as the best one-on-one defender in the Premier League, but his marking skills and positional awareness when defending crosses was a reoccurring weakness last season that directly led to United conceding goals on multiple occasions.
Going forward has never been his strength, although he has been getting better in that respect, and that would be okay if the defensive side of his game was more complete. But at the moment it isn’t and he can’t survive on just being a good one-on-one tackler alone.
5. Anthony Martial
The 2019/20 season was supposed to be a watershed moment for Martial. He was given back the number nine shirt that was taken from him in 2016, seemingly ending a three-year sulk, and appeared to have had the mental breakthrough to become an effective goalscorer.
As a result, the Frenchman went on to score 23 times in all competitions, the best single season tally of his career by some distance. But instead of that being a springboard, it was a one-off, as Martial was extremely poor last season by those standards he had set himself.
Long before his campaign was curtailed due to injury, Martial was a shadow the player he had been only months earlier and it ended as his lowest scoring season since joining United. He will be expected to start a lot of games in 2021/22 and can’t carry on in such awful form.
6. David de Gea
There is still no answer to United’s goalkeeping conundrum, but Dean Henderson’s prolonged fatigue since testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this summer makes it more likely that David de Gea will be number one when the season kicks off.
A title challenge isn’t possible without a reliable goalkeeper and De Gea’s decline since 2018 has been alarming. He has the potential to be the best in the world, as he showed between 2014 and 2017, but needs to find a way to return to that level.
The arrival of Raphael Varane in front of him might help in that respect, with a firm and strong centre-back partnership likely to breathe confidence into the Spanish stopper.