Europa League could tell Manchester United about their January transfer priorities
Manchester United learned a lot from their last Europa League campaign.
And they managed to win the thing too.
Expectations are now as high as ever as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side prepare to begin this season’s iteration of the competition that tends to illicit more sighs than smiles — until you get towards its latter stages.
Yet for United this season, even the group stages should prove informative. This is, let’s not forget, a United squad with its fair share of inadequacies and areas that require more depth and improvement.
So the Europa League should tell Solskjaer, his coaches, scouts and recruitment team plenty about the upcoming January window, which will already be in their minds.
The general accepted truth is that United are lacking a central midfielder and an extra forward, but it’s when the fringe players step forward against Astana, AZ Alkmaar and Partizan Belgrade that the Reds will discover how much they truly need to spend.
With Luke Shaw out with a thigh injury, their resources at left-back will be severely tested. Aaron Wan-Bissaka cannot shoulder all the responsibility at right-back, so Diogo Dalot will need to step up when fit again to replace the former Crystal Palace man.
The centre-back ranks appear well stocked, but Solskjaer will want to feel comfortable enough to rest Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof at will, given the importance of upcoming Premier League games against West Ham, Arsenal, Newcastle and others.
That means a new kind of pressure on Axel Tuanzebe and the much-maligned duo of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, who should feature. If none of the reserve defenders can hold their own in the Europa League, Solskjaer and his team must be ready to sign a new player in January — particularly if Shaw’s injury travails continue and the burden is too much on 34-year-old Young.
In midfield, the issues are well documented, but should Fred fail to build on his promising display off the bench against Leicester — and Nemanja Matic continues to look slightly slow and ponderous, as he has done of late — then the clamour to sign a central midfielder in January will only grow louder.
Many United fans will hope the performances of Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood are good enough to allay some fears that Solskjaer needs to pack his squad with extra options. But a lot is being asked of the young trio, and James Garner. Their promise is one thing, yet their performances cannot be guaranteed.
Greenwood, for example, may play as United’s main striker for several Europa League matches. But he’s yet to score a senior goal, so surely cannot be asked to supply United’s goals in a European competition, albeit a lesser one.
So by the time the Europa League group stage reaches its conclusion on December 12, after the home fixture against AZ Alkmaar, Manchester United will — Solskjaer will hope — have cruised through to the knockout stages, discovered plenty about their fringe and youth players but also identified one or two key areas that must be addressed in January.
The planning for the winter will have started even before the groups were drawn, but the six games should serve as one big transfer reminder. United’s squad is still a work in progress and in the next few months, it will be tested to its limit.
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