Whenever a Manchester United season ends we inevitably move on to “Report Card SZN” where grades are given for every player and countless pieces are written about who should stay and who should be sold.
This is not (completely) one of those series.
We’re not looking to dish out grades or ratings for player performances this season. Rather, the idea is to look at how each player contributed this season and what their role should be in this team next season. That’s a team that should be taking a step forward next season — the standards of year two of a rebuild must be higher than the standards of year one.
Here’s how we’ve defined the roles to be assigned to each player.
- First Choice: By default, these players start every game, and the team tactics are being built with them in mind. The only reason they don’t start is either because of injury or rest.
- First Team: If these players are fit, they’re in the match-day squad. They should start three or four of every five (league) matches and almost certainly come off the bench in the others. They can be dropped for tactical reasons.
- Squad Player: These players can competently step into the XI if needed. They’ll probably be on the bench most games, but in a fully fit squad, it’s not guaranteed. They’ll likely feature heavily in the cups.
- Reserve Player: Here for numbers. Injuries happen and teams need to be able to call on someone. These players will get chances in the cups, but they’re not guaranteed — so they’ll need to impress to work their way up the squad hierarchy.
- Loan: Send ‘em out on loan.
- Sell: Do whatever you can to get rid of these players.
This obviously isn’t an exact science, but it’s meant to represent an overall approach to squad going in to next season.
Pogba may have started the year wanting a move to Real Madrid — or “a new challenge” — but acted like a complete professional. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ruthlessness with moving players on that didn’t fit his United mold (“I’d rather have a hole in the team than an arsehole”) and holding on to Pogba lets you know exactly how the Frenchman is viewed in that dressing room.
On the pitch, Pogba’s contribution is simple. He makes United a far better team.
The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has allowed Pogba to play a much simpler game and it’s turned him into a much better deep lying playmaker. He won’t get the move to Real Madrid, but if it was a new challenge he was seeking, he has that now.
Role next season: First Choice
Fred came into the season looking to prove that a poor first season was a fluke. He did that and then some. Easily the best and most consistent midfielder in the team over the course of the season, and he showed that United have good depth in midfield. It was extremely perplexing why he wasn’t given more time after the lockdown and undeservedly fell below Scott McTominay in the pecking order at one point. Took his chances in the Europa League to show he can be a viable backup to Nemanja Matić.
Role next season: First Team
Matić looked to be heading for the exit in January only to be given a new lease on life at Old Trafford. He grabbed that opportunity with both hands to help steady United’s season. After the season restart, he showed that even if he’s not the best defensive midfielder United have, his skillset makes the rest of the team better than any of the others do.
Definitely doesn’t have the legs to be an every day starter anymore, but he’s clearly a valuable asset.
Role next season: First Team
Responsible for the best moment of United’s season.
McTominay started the season a vastly improved player to what he was last year. But while players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Fred, and Mason Greenwood ended the season vastly improved to where they were at the start, McTominay didn’t. He was one of two players to come out of the lockdown with noticeably worse form than they had going in.
His absence was notable in the New Year’s Day loss to Arsenal but his status as “first name on the team sheet for big games” quickly dwindled when Bruno Fernandes arrived and United started winning without him — including their best defensive performance of the season in the home derby vs City.
His sense of positioning is weak — making the game much harder on himself — and his eagerness to run often drags him out of position, leaving his midfield partner exposed. He’s also extremely one footed and that problem only got worse this year, not better. His skills on the ball lag behind those of his teammates. This gets badly exposed in games where United have a lot of the ball.
The dropoff in these numbers can be explained by McTominay’s contribution in the buildup of United’s possession. xG Buildup gives the total xG of each shot to each player involved in the chain of possession minus the player who took the shot and the player who made the final pass before the shot.
Of players to have played at least four games this year, only Martial, Rashford, Dan James, and David De Gea fared worse than McTominay. A goalkeeper and three forwards who are usually either making the final pass or taking the shot.
xG Chain does the same thing but also credits the shot taker and assister.
Only Victor Lindelöf and De Gea rank lower. In fact, McTominay is the 105th ranked midfielder in xG Chain. Fifty-two defenders scored higher than him as well. Only six midfielders who play for teams that finished in the top half of the table ranked lower than McTominay — three of whom play for Burnley.
Next season will be a big year for McTominay. He turns 24 in December, so he’s not young anymore. It’ll be his fourth season of first team football. It’s “s**t or get off the pot” time.
If he doesn’t make The Leap next year, it’s hard to see it ever happening.
Role next season: Squad Player
Garner dominated the U23 level this season and has clearly outgrown academy football. In his starts against Partizan and Astana in the Europa League he showed he has the technical skills on the ball to play at the senior level. Those matches also showed that physically he’s just not there yet. He was shoved around far too easily, and the physicality will only be higher in the Premier League.
That’s not unexpected. At 18 years old his body simply isn’t fully grown yet. That will come with time. In fact, pictures from the training ground suggest he may have hit a growth spurt during the lockdown. Still, he’s only a teenager and he needs a year of consistent senior football to get him ready to contribute to United. Or maybe at least until January.
Role next season: Loan (Maybe only until January)
Levitt looked really impressive on the ball against Astana in the Europa League, but that was only one game — we shouldn’t get carried away by it. Like Garner, he has the technical skills to play first team football, but he needs a consistent run of games in senior football to prepare him for the physical side of things. The odd appearance here and there in the cups is not enough for him at this stage of his development.
Role next season: Loan