If at the start of this season, you had told any Manchester United fan that they would finish comfortably in second place and with a European final, they would have been absolutely delighted. Yet come the end of the campaign, many are disappointed, holding on to what could have been rather than taking a step back and seeing how much of a success this campaign truly was.
Yes, this season had the potential for much greater things. The Red Devils were top of the league in January, they seemed to be guaranteed a place in the Champions League knockout stages just two games in, and they missed out on a golden opportunity to win a European trophy. However, the campaign that United ended up having was by no means a failure and should give fans hope for what is to come.
Manchester United Season Review: Progress on Display Throughout a Campaign That Ended in Heartbreak
Unproductive Off-Season Provoking Slow Start
The off-season which followed the 2019/20 campaign was not particularly successful for the Red Devils, who failed to sign a single starter during the summer transfer window.
Furthermore, they only had just over a month between the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, giving virtually no time for any usual preseason preparations. Instead, they were limited to one friendly before their delayed start of the campaign. This, alongside their lack of a marquee signing, proved problematic for United, especially when, in their first match of the season, they came up against a Crystal Palace side who had already played a competitive game the week before. This gave the Eagles a massive advantage over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, who slumped to a 3-1 opening day defeat.
The Red Devils’ following five league games saw them win two, draw one, and lose two, a disappointing record for a team who were chasing top-four at the time.
Despite their questionable form in the league, though, United were doing well in their Champions League group, beating both Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig in their opening two matches.
These games provided fans with something of a rollercoaster ride, witnessing their side beat Brighton with a penalty given after the final whistle one week, only to see them suffer a 6-1 battering the next.
This string of fixtures ended in a dull 1-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal on November 1. The Gunners would go on to have a season-defining, catastrophic run of form, United would not lose again until the end of January
Fantastic Mid-Season Form
United built up some excellent momentum in the league during the festive period, winning ten matches and drawing three between their losses to Arsenal at the start of November and Sheffield United almost three months later. This left them top of the league in the middle of January and allowed fans to get excited at the prospect of a league title that looked so improbable at the start of the campaign.
Failure in the league aligned with success in Europe at the start of the season, and the inverse also appeared true. During this period, the Manchester side gained just three points from four Champions League matches, causing them to crash out of their group despite such a promising start. This reunited them with the Europa League, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still searching for his first trophy in charge at Old Trafford.
Shaky Last Few Months Cost Manchester United
Dropping points in seemingly easy matches has become something of a tradition at the Theatre of Dreams in recent years. In the last four months of the season, the Red Devils lost to Sheffield United, who were firmly rooted at the bottom of the table, and drew with West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, among other disappointing results. Scores like these are not viable for a team looking to win the league, and they ultimately cost United any hope of doing so. While at the start of the campaign they would have taken it in a heartbeat, second place now seems like a failure for the Manchester side, having been halfway towards winning the league at the turn of the year.
Once again, domestic struggles did not translate into Europe, with United reaching the final of the Europa League. While there was much hope that they could win their first trophy in four years, it was not to be, with David de Gea the only taker to miss in an 11-10 penalty shootout defeat.
A Season of Highs and Lows
There were many highs for Manchester United fans over the course of the season, including comeback victories against Southampton and West Ham United, being top of the table for the first time in two-and-a-half years, and their 9-0 thrashing of the Saints. However, the best moment for most was when Solskjaer’s side beat Manchester City 2-0, the Citizens’ first loss in 22 games. While the fact that this stopped United’s city rivals from breaking the record held by Bayern Munich for the longest winning run sweetened it for fans, the manner in which the Red Devils won was what was so truly satisfying. They outplayed the league leaders with an energetic performance characterized by a high-intensity press, and deservedly emerged with three points.
Similarly, Manchester United felt a fair few lows over the course of the season, but the most heartbreaking of all was certainly their Europa League final loss in Gdansk. The entire season had built to that moment, only for the Red Devils to lose on penalties; the most agonising defeat imaginable. Winning a trophy would have been a huge boost for such a young and largely inexperienced squad, but they will have to wait another year for that opportunity to arise once more.
Three players stood out from the rest this season with their consistent performances of top quality: Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, and Harry Maguire.
Fernandes has been the most important player at Old Trafford since he joined in January 2020, with his influence on the rest of the squad only adding to his output on the pitch. Over the course of the season, the former Sporting Lisbon man netted 28 goals while assisting 17. He was also the third-highest scorer in the Premier League, despite being a midfielder. Not only can his quality be seen through stats, so too is it on display in the way he injects quality into the game, something which is made all the more obvious when he is not playing.
United’s most improved player this season, Shaw has been equally important. His attacking game has flourished over the past 12 months, while also remaining solid defensively. The 25-year-old has been pushed on by the competition provided by summer signing Alex Telles and has largely kept the Brazilian out of Solskjaer’s starting side since the transfer.
Finally, the captain. Harry Maguire’s importance in this United team was best illustrated towards the end of the season when injury forced him out of the side. Maguire had not missed a minute of Premier League football since his move to Old Trafford in 2019 before being sidelined, and it was at this point that his leadership and calming influence was amplified through its absence.