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Manchester United, now what?

FA Cup victory comes at the end of one of the worst seasons ever

Manchester United, now what? FA Cup victory comes at the end of one of the worst seasons ever

Undoubtedly, there is beauty in chaos. You can stand in the eye of the storm and, amongst the wreckage, there often appear a few sweet spots that encourage calming respite, a moment in which you are able, albeit briefly, to understand the bigger picture. Manchester United have indulged in a pool of chaos throughout the majority of the 2023/24 season, seemingly finishing the season with more questions than answers despite taking home their second trophy in two years under Erik Ten Hag with a thoroughly deserved FA Cup victory over a tepid, despondent Manchester City side apparently stuck in the quagmire of their fourth-league-in-a-row celebrations. The FA Cup has really found a home in the red side of Manchester, having been won by both the Manchester United mens and womens side

That said, the 2023/24 season was arguably the worst Manchester United have experienced in the last two decades, conceding more shots than the infamous Derby County team of 2007/08, the worst team the Premier League has seen (let’s not mention that the Red Devils conceded 81 goals, their most in a season since 1976/77). Defensive instability being the defining characteristic of Manchester United’s season, one can’t help but consider the fact that, had Lisandro Martinez not suffered yet another major injury, this time in the form of a medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury which kept him out and continued the theme of injuries plaguing the Argentinian who, when fit, genuinely changes the way this Manchester United team operates. Left with having to rotate Harry Maguire, Jonny Evans, Victor Lindelof, Raphael Varane, and Willy Kambwala may on the face of it not be the end of the world, yet given injury niggles and the huge number of games, United had to welcome Casemiro into the central defensive fold which, on the whole, failed. One would anticipate that the Red Devils will be looking to significantly bolster their defensive roster whilst moving on from residual players in the hopes of adding youth, saving wage money, and looking to build a less-leaky backline.  

In an attacking sense, Ten Hag’s free-flowing Ajax and his more rigid counter-attacking Manchester United are poles apart. In a side that has often relied on the individual brilliance of Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford to overcome their lack of footballing philosophy, a Marcus Rashford shaped dip in goalscoring form unequivocally contributed to United’s difficulty in finding any semblance of stability as the season progressed. Many have been left to speculate on the future of both Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes, with the latter being strongly linked to Bavaraian giants Bayern Munich in recent weeks. Sir Jim Ratcliffe, owner of petrochemicals company Ineos - the company that also own OGC Nice and Swiss side FC Lausanne-Sport - will be indulging in their 27% stake in United aiming to return this dormant giant to the top table of Premier League and Champions League football. It is expected that Ratcliffe will be highly involved in the forthcoming changes at United, a feeling Chelsea fans know all too well given their new ownership structure, with Reds fans anxiously hopeful that a cash injection will help propel their club forward. 

So, I find myself at an impasse. Given the need for brevity, and the challenges that come with being tasked to write about Manchester United whilst keeping brevity in mind, I will briefly touch on the shining lights of their season. The storm clouds of tumultuous Premier League and European inconsistencies have, to a large extent, been off-set by a few potentially defining moments which, for United fans, will hopefully form the solid foundations for future successes. Sir Alex Ferguson was seen mouthing a single word following United’s 4-3 victor over Wolves on February 1st: “Mainoo”. Kobbie Mainoo is unquestionably the significant story of United’s season. For a fan of any team, there are few greater feelings than “one of your own” stepping into the team and stepping up. For Kobbie, his season has been so utterly mercurial, netting the second in the FA Cup Final, starting for England against Brazil, that he looks set to carry the flag for United and England for the next decade. Inadvertently, United have produced one of the highest potential young midfielders England has since the turn of the millennium. 

Whilst not as directly stand-out as Kobbie Mainoo are two other bright sparks for United’s present and future, the first of them being Alejandro Garnacho, whose bicycle kick against Everton is and first goal in United’s FA Cup win have kept him as a diamond in the United crown. For Garnacho, the aim will be to improve on his 8 goals and 4 assists he notched over the course of 3000 minutes - an achievable target for a player of his potential. Much in the same bracket, albeit without two highly significant goals, sits Rasmus Højlund who ends the season with 15 goals and 2 assists, with 5 of those goals coming in United’s dismal Champions League performances. Højlund is an outstanding young talent, clearly equipped with the tools to see him thrive at the very highest level, he simply needs greater service from those around him. As for Ten Hag, the system appears to be faulty. Now, I am aware that sentiment towards the Dutchman is higher than it has been throughout the entirety of the season given their FA Cup success, yet few could seriously contend with the idea that the football he has been guiding his United team to play has been underwhelming to say the least this season. If he is to remain in his job, a serious case for tactical tinkering needs to be put forward. Oh, and not forgetting the four bookings he received this season - perhaps the case for calm could also be tabled. 

Lastly, before I finish this piece, I just wanted to nod towards what would’ve been the standout result of the season had United not won the FA Cup, that being the 4-3 victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup Quarter Finals against bitter rivals as peripheral winger Amad Diallo scored a a 120th minute winner followed by a red card due to his celebrations (a welcome touch, if you ask me). In a way, the FA Cup run typified what United are, and what they can be. At once a club so large, so chaotic, and nonsensical yet able, in key moments, to beat the very best. A strange dichotomy. Some much needed stadium refurbishment and defensive investment will help bridge the gap between United and those sitting in the Champions League spaces at the top of the Premier League. Equally, recouping funds from failed transfers such as Antony and moving Mason Greenwood on as quickly and quietly as possible would be the ideal outcome for United, albeit quietly seems highly unlikely. 

Whether ten Hag stays or not, United certainly have some of the most exciting young talent in Europe, coupled with some highly respected seasoned professionals. If the manager can find the right balance, United will be an unpleasant task for any opponent, that said, it is far too early for any serious predictions. For now, United fans can enjoy silverware sitting at Old Trafford once again, a welcome place to be at the close of the season.