If Sunday’s 1-0 win over Watford closed Manchester United’s Premier League campaign on a moderate high, it also helped to underline the fact that Jose Mourinho has to add a lot of quality to his squad if they are to close the huge gap which opened up between them and neighbours City this season.
United need to be in a title race at the very least next term, but their lack of strength in depth will continue to be a concern if some major work isn’t done to it over the summer.
The likes of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera have done decent jobs for multiple United managers in recent years but they must be back-up options at best in 2018-19 if the Red Devils are to mount a more significant title challenge than their short-lived efforts of this season.
On Sunday at Old Trafford there were outings for the likes of Matteo Darmian, Marcos Rojo, Scott McTominay and Daley Blind, are for as long as players of their calibre are among the reserve alternatives in their positions, United simply cannot expect to contend with City’s blockbuster squad.
“In championships over 38 matches, the reality is always the reality of the numbers,” he told a pre-match press conference. “And the reality of the numbers is that between the second and the fifth the difference is eight points, but the difference between the first and second is 19 points. That’s the reality of the numbers.
“Can we close that gap in one season with a very difficult market? We are going to try.”
And they will need to try hard. City will not have it all their own way next term. Champions have a target on their back in a way they have not experienced in previous seasons, and if Pep Guardiola’s side are to retain their title they will be the first team since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Reds in 2008-09 to do so. But they have one hell of a platform from which to propel themselves into the new campaign.
United don’t have the likes of players of the ilk of Ilkay Gundogan among their secondary midfield options. They don’t have a raft of £40 million defenders to call on as back-ups. When they go shopping this summer they need to be looking to recruit players who can replace what they have in the first team, not just supplement them.
Last summer they added Victor Lindelof but he was always going to take some time to adapt and, while he might come good eventually, he was never likely to immediately make them a more solid, organised outfit. United need to be a far more intimidating force at the heart of their defence, and while Eric Bailly can occasionally be just that they need him to be more consistent and whoever partners him to be equally as convincing.
Something should have been done about their full-back situation before now too, and if it is not addressed this close season then there will be serious concerns going into the new campaign too. A decision needs to be made on whether Luke Shaw will be United’s first-choice left-back of the future. Young has been a surprising success in the position but only in relative terms. On the right, Valencia’s best days appear to be in the past. Such players can still have a role to play, but not every week if United are going to harbour realistic title hopes.
In midfield, Herrera offers a creative presence where they need a bulldog. When Paul Pogba excelled on the left of a midfield trio at Juventus, he was backed by the artistry of Andrea Pirlo and the ground-eating tenacity of Arturo Vidal. United can’t afford to have Pogba attempting to play the same style with wishy-washy footballers to his side. Nemanja Matic can sit and dictate more, too, if there is someone of real steel added.
Whoever comes in, United need to be aiming high. The general ineffectiveness of their play on Sunday said much about the try-hard nature of their current troops. They’ll give it a go, but there is a lack of quality below the surface.
Only in attack do they have a multitude of options, with Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial all vying for a place on the left, and Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard available on the right. But the potential loss of Martial in the summer would soon leave them looking that little more bare in that department too.
Executive vice-chair Ed Woodward will report to investors this Thursday on the latest quarter’s earnings, and while he will doubtless mention a five-year high in the Premier League and the anticipation of a potential FA Cup success on Saturday, most of his presentation is likely to centre around the latest money-making commercial gains done in another far-flung corner of the globe.
But that money will need to be spent well over the next few months, because United need to become a consistent force on the field next term and that just cannot happen with their current squad.