As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walked off the pitch at Leicester’s King Power Stadium on Sunday afternoon he looked up towards where Manchester United‘s four directors had been sitting and was given a thumbs up from group managing director Richard Arnold.
It was a job well done from the Norwegian.
United were written off by many before Christmas – following a disastrous start to the season – but they secured a third-place finish, the second-highest league position since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013, and clinched Champions League football for the next campaign with their win over Leicester.
Coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna had a celebratory beer pitchside to mark the end of a protracted Premier League season while Solskjaer was undertaking the numerous television interviews he was obligated to complete. The message to each one – and in his post-match press conference – was the same.
And those teams aren’t just a little bit ahead of United. There’s no denying that it’s been a good season in the league in terms of where they finished but that’s all relative to the situation they find themselves in.
They have struggled to mount a title charge since Ferguson retired and despite finishing third they were 33 points off league leaders Liverpool. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
The owners and board have so far backed Solskjaer in his rebuild. Even when the club were struggling at the start of the season they stood by the Treble winner.
Within the club hierarchy there was never any doubt that he would be given some time to mould his new-look team. Since he was given the job on a permanent basis in March 2019 he has brought in five players – Daniel James, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo.
He’s shown why he needs backing in the window again this summer thanks to the stellar performances of those he signed. Despite the warnings about the financial climate due to Covid-19 there is money to be spent and the club remain hopeful that at least a couple of deals can be agreed.
The last time United finished this high in the league they missed the opportunity to strengthen properly. Fred arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk for £52m ($68m), Diogo Dalot from Porto for £19m ($25m) and Lee Grant from Stoke for £1.5m ($2m).
Jose Mourinho didn’t get the centre-back he was after in the lead-up to the 2018-19 season and his dissatisfaction set the tone for the start of the campaign which saw him sacked by Christmas.
There’s no risk of Solskjaer throwing his toys out of the pram in the same manner if he doesn’t get his desired additions but it’s vital he’s given the backing he needs.
In a dream scenario they would bring in a right-sided attacker where Jadon Sancho is their top priority, a centre-back, midfielder and a striker. But in a pandemic-hit market the realistic view is that all four won’t be possible.
But the board needs to act swiftly. Targets were agreed way before the pandemic brought football to a halt for nearly three months and now, with the window open, they’ve got the opportunity to start negotiating.
Despite German reports claiming United have already had an £89m ($116m) bid rejected for Sancho, they have yet to submit an offer. The two clubs are far apart on their valuations for the former Manchester City youngster and sources expect talks to rumble on.
You only need to rewind to January to get a taste of how long the deal could take. The haggling that went on back and forth between United and Sporting CP meant it took until January 30 before Bruno Fernandes was confirmed as a United player.
Had that deal been agreed at the start of the month, how much more of an impact could he have made?
It was a similar tale last summer when it took nearly the entire window to agree deals for Maguire and Wan-Bissaka – two players who had long been on United’s transfer list.
Last season Solskjaer had hoped to have his new players in for the start of pre-season training. They don’t have that self-imposed deadline this summer but having seen the transformative effect Fernandes has had on the team it would be more than beneficial to have any new recruits in before they begin their 2020-21 campaign.
It is understood that should United reach the Europa League final they will be given a 30-day break, That means they are unlikely to start their season until September 19, a week after the Premier League begins on September 12, giving the club’s chief negotiators an extra week to ensure signings are in for their first league game.
The transfer window doesn’t close until Monday, October 5 but with United punished for their slow start to last season they can’t afford the same mistakes in the new campaign if they’re going to attempt to mount a title charge.
Solskjaer has set out what he needs and now it’s over to the board to deliver, sooner rather than later.