The Premier League season has already started, but the real season starts on Saturday, when Manchester United kick off their 2020-21 campaign against Crystal Palace. Here, our writers make their big picture predictions for the new season.
Midfield will (finally) be a strong point
I still can't believe I typed that when talking about Manchester United. Over the years it seems like our midfield has consistently been a weak part of our squad. Yes, we have had some great players there but the whole unit wasn’t up to standards for a long time — until this season.
The possible combination of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and the newest member of the midfield, Donny van de Beek, gives us a serious threat to score from our second liners. Even if van de Beek comes off the bench the threat is still there.
Assuming Nemanja Matić gets the start in holding midfield, United now have quality replacements on the bench that could still provide an attacking threat and start a run.
Fred — coming off a very good season — can replace Matić, Scott McTominay can cover Pogba and Van de Beek can alternate with and fit in alongside both Pogba and Fernandes.
In terms of quality starters and quality in reserve, United’s midfield corps is now the strongest part of their squad. - VR
Van de Beek will be your new favorite player
Piggybacking off of what Vince alluded to in his midfield prediction, Donny Van de Beek is a massive addition to a midfield that was vastly improved with the addition of Bruno Fernandes last January. Only a couple minutes of film from his days at Ajax will tell you that DVDB will bring a Fernandes-level impact to the midfield this season.
Think about all the aspects of Fernandes’ game that you like: the tenacity, the motor, the fearlessness to create chances, the calmness on the ball — DVDB has all that packed in his locker along with Champions League experience to boot. - NH
Defense will be even better this year
The perception of United last season was a team with a Champions League caliber attack and a middling defense. That’s an awfully funny perception considering that for half the season they didn’t have that Champions League attack and it was the defense who kept them in contention.
But because Harry Maguire has his flaws (who doesn’t?), and the fans hate Victor Lindelöf and have mixed feelings (at best) about Luke Shaw — everyone wants to say the defense is crap. The reality is United conceded the third fewest goals in the league last season (only three behind Liverpool) and had the third lowest expected goals against.
That number looks set to improve this year. Defending doesn’t start with your defenders — it starts further up the field. The addition of Bruno Fernandes has bolstered United’s defending at the front, but the meat of everything is in the midfield. If you let opponents run straight at your defense, it doesn’t matter how good your defenders are.
Nemanja Matić coming back into the team last year was an immediate boost for the defense and having him back in contention means we should see him for the better part of the season. The addition of Donny van de Beek should mean less Scott McTominay, which means less of someone gambling for interceptions in the midfield only to leave his partner out to dry.
Just that one additional player should mean that we never have to line up with a midfield pair of Andreas Pereira and Fred ever again. The two played together as a midfield pair for 162 minutes in the Premier League last season and United conceded four goals in that time. That’s 11 percent of their season total in less than a two game period.
But the real reason for the defense to be better? The goalkeeping. David de Gea followed up a poor 2018-19 campaign with an equally poor 2019-20. Is this just what De Gea is now, or has he just grown complacent? If it’s the latter, Dean Henderson being behind him should give him the push he needs to get back to his top form. If it’s the former, then Dean Henderson won’t be behind him for very long. - PK
Rashford and Martial will continue their ascent to superstardom
The 2019-20 season was full of ups and downs for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s constantly evolving squad. A late season surge saw the Red Devils finish third after sitting as low as 10th in November. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes helped stabilize the midfield and identify a reliable creator for a team that desperately lacked a no. 10. The attacking shape of the team became much more defined with everyone fit and firing on all cylinders during the post-restart push. However, the groundwork had already been laid for some time for Ole to find reliable goalscoring options, and even as the rest of the team struggled to get their job done in the first half of the season — Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial shone brightly as they each broke the 20 goal barrier for the first time in their respective careers. If not for a couple injury setbacks they may have each gotten closer to 30 goals.
Solskjaer’s first transfer window as manager showed a couple of things about how he saw the United squad. First, defensive upgrades were his primary concern after an abysmal 2018-19 season. Second, he was willing to give certain outfielders a chance after moving on from squad members Romelu Lukaku, Ander Herrera, and Alexis Sánchez. Pogba’s injury problems complicated midfield matters, and Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira failed their audition for the no. 10, but trusting Rashford and Martial to help carry the attack was the right choice. They both improved massively under Ole after some worrying years with José Mourinho. The pair of versatile attackers carried labels such as “streaky” and “inconsistent” in their time with “The Special One,” but shed those masterfully as they carried nearly the entire offensive burden from August to January. Rashford in particular developed well as a creator, and often dropped back into midfield to help in build up play and compensate for the lack of quality in that position group. Martial too became a more involved no. 9. He spent much less time waiting for plays to come to him, and worked on his offensive positioning to become a more effective finisher. Both have become better goalscorers rather than just scorers of good goals.
With the new season on the horizon Martial and Rashford have cemented themselves as the leaders up top. The arrival of Donny Van De Beek, the stability in midfield compared to a year ago, and a (hopefully) healthy Pogba and Bruno duo, Rash and Tony are set up to improve upon their respective records last season. United fans are hopeful of another star attacker arriving through the transfer window to form a star-powered front three, but for now United still have two of the most reliable attackers in Europe. Last season will hopefully be only the start of a long and beautiful partnership. - CD