It is the halfway mark in the season, and as Manchester United prepare for a potentially exciting second period to come, this point seems appropriate to ‘grade’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team.
For those unfamiliar with how the United Kingdom grades students, letters are awarded based on success – with an A* being the highest grade achievable, and an ungraded – or a ‘U’ – as the lowest. We’ll be using this system to grade United’s season to this point – so, how do the side shape up at half-term?
United’s defence has been decent so far this season, with improved performances from the likes of Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and certainly Eric Bailly in central defence. The showings of Luke Shaw have certainly improved since the arrival of Alex Telles in the summer, as the left-back who once showed so much promise as a teenager has finally seemed to put the pieces together to form a well-rounded player.
In goal, the threat of Dean Henderson seems to have lit the necessary fire under David de Gea, whose patchy form from the last two seasons has transformed into largely a consistent stretch in the first team, with Henderson waiting in the wings should he trip up. There have been fewer mistakes that seemed to plague the Spaniard a year ago, and his form has been solid in the last few months.
The weaknesses on the backline seem to be a centre-half consistent enough to partner captain Maguire, as well as depth at the right-back position, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka struggling due to the fixture congestion. The rumours of a more attacking right-back to mirror Telles at left-back could work wonders for Solskjaer’s men.
Star Pupil: Luke Shaw
Must Improve: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
United entered the season hoping that Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes could form a majestic partnership in the heart of midfield, with Nemanja Matic sitting as a screen behind the two more creative players. That hasn’t quite gone to plan – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The improvements from Scott McTominay and Fred have largely kept Matic and Pogba out of the team, with the latter falling on hard times in the Autumn thanks to mindless comments from his agent about leaving the club. In fairness to the Frenchman, he’s improved since December, and is starting to force Solskjaer to shoehorn him into the team, with Pogba deployed on the wings and in midfield recently. He’s taken criticism and improved – so it’s good marks for the World Cup winner.
New signing Donny van de Beek’s game time has been limited, and although he scored on his debut in a 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, he’s been fielded only occasionally and usually in Europe or in the domestic cups.
And of course, the quality of Fernandes in his role sometimes single-handedly drags the Red Devils to results, and his talent has ensured United have turned losses and draws into wins this year. Would the Reds top the table if Fernandes wasn’t at the club? Probably not.
Star Pupil: Bruno Fernandes
Must Improve: Nemanja Matic
Following an electric end to the 2019-20 season that saw the triad of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood find the scoresheet frequently, many thought they could pick up where they left off this year. However, neither Martial nor Greenwood have been as consistent as they were last term.
Only Rashford has picked up where he left off at the end of last season, with an impressive scoring record of seven goals in nineteen games, largely from the left-wing. He’s also contributed five assists to the cause, with United holding the second-best scoring record in the league – one goal behind champions Liverpool.
The signing of Edinson Cavani in the summer has been an inspired one, as the Uruguayan has scored several times for the Reds as well as providing an experienced head in the dressing room that has an average age of 25.8.
So far, there’s room for improvement for United’s attackers, but the contributions of Rashford, coupled with the improvement of Greenwood over the last few games should hold the Red Devils in good stead as the second half of the campaign looms.
Star Pupil: Marcus Rashford
Must Improve: Anthony Martial
Frankly, however you thought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ranked among Premier League managers last season, for him to have United at the summit of the table at the halfway stage is an amazing achievement.
There have been blips along the way, such as a 6-1 thumping to Tottenham Hotspur in October, but having only lost once since then, as well as dumping Liverpool out of the FA Cup and just losing to Manchester City in the League Cup Semi-Final is a solid showing from the former striker.
Of course, dropping out of the Champions League, especially from the advantageous position they were in with two games to go in the group, is a mark on his record, but it would be unfair to let that ruin his strong work this season, considering two of his opponents were in the semi-final of last year’s competition, one of which was even in the final.
Overall, it’s been a good year so far for Solskjaer, but it means nothing if United do not eventually improve on last season’s result. The target to beat is third, with sixty-six points. United currently have forty, with half the year still to play.
There’s still much to do for United – but it’s been a solid showing at the halfway stage.
Overall Grade: B+