The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t halted Manchester United’s momentum as, like the song their supporters sing, ‘the Reds go marching on’.
Saturday’s emphatic 5-2 dismantling of lowly Bournemouth in the Premier League gave further optimism about the team that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is beginning to build at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils are now 16 games unbeaten in all competitions as they continue to fight for a top-four finish alongside ending the season with FA Cup and Europa League silverware.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has plenty to smile about right now
He saw his side go 16 games unbeaten in all competitions with a 5-2 win over Bournemouth
United legend Rio Ferdinand believes they need to sign three automatic starters for next term
Despite the positive outlook, the grim reality for fans is that they are 34 points behind newly-crowned champions, and bitter rivals Liverpool, with five games remaining.
United legend Rio Ferdinand believes that if his former side are going to challenge for the title next season then they still need to strengthen this summer.
Asked what United are missing, Ferdinand said on BT Sport: ‘I think they need to add three starters minimum.
‘I’m talking definitely a centre back, with pace. You’ve got Harry Maguire there who they’ve invested huge amounts in. I think he’s not someone blessed with pace, he’s got other attributes that you like. But you need someone with pace to be able to sit alongside him and cover.
‘Another midfielder to go in there who can dominate physically as well and can actually understand defensive positions. Yes, Scott McTominay has been a fantastic addition as a young player coming in, the experience as well.
‘And I think even in the forward areas another player to come in and really rival that front three and be a part of that and add goals.’
In light of Ferdinand’s comments, Sportsmail takes a look at some of the potential options available to Solskjaer.
Ferdinand believes a centre back, midfielder and forward are needed to challenge for the title
Kalidou Koulibaly’s name has been linked with a move to Manchester United for a number of transfer windows now and the Napoli centre back would certainly fill the void that Ferdinand has spoken about.
Watching Koulibaly play – he has it all. A physically dominant defender, at 6ft 1in and with speed in abundance, he allies that with his ball-playing finesse and a reliability to play every match.
Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly has been linked with a move to United over numerous windows
The above qualities would fit Solskjaer’s ideologies. His pace would be a welcome foil to captain Harry Maguire, for example, while he can also build attacks from defence as United continue to transition from a counter-attack philosophy to a more possession-based game.
The centre back isn’t averse to playing on the biggest of stages either – having demonstrated his class against the world’s best multiple times in the Champions League especially. This was evident this season in the two group-stage clashes with Liverpool – with Napoli winning the first 2-0 before earning a 1-1 draw at Anfield.
Koulibaly turned 29 last month and his age combined with Napoli’s £89million valuation could ward off interest – especially with little resell value on him moving forwards.
The 29-year-old would command a huge fee – with Napoli valuing him at £89million
Perhaps a slightly more left-field option is Nathan Ake. United fans on social media have speculated that the Bournemouth centre back could be a target this summer following his interaction with Solskjaer at full-time on Saturday.
BT Sport showed footage of Solskjaer speaking with the Holland international where they subtitled the conversation as ‘You need a bit of luck with your centre backs, keep going.’
However, many believe that subtitling is incorrect with Solskjaer appearing to say ‘We need a left-footed centre back, so keep going.’
Nathan Ake could be a cheaper alternative for Solskjaer if he wishes to strengthen in defence
Like Koulibaly, Ake fits the profile that Ferdinand believes United need. Quick and comfortable on the ball, any purchase of Ake may be seen by some as better business than Koulibaly.
First of all there is the age difference with Ake four years younger than Koulibaly. In addition too, he is accustomed to the Premier League having played the whole of his professional club career in England. The 25-year-old would also certainly be a cheaper option than the Senegalese – especially if Bournemouth are relegated this season.
Stylistically, he would provide a more natural balance in defence too with his left foot. Out of their centre-back options only Marcos Rojo is naturally left-sided and he is currently out on loan at Argentine side Estudiantes. However, Ake’s height could count against him at around 5ft 11in – although he does have a good leap.
Ake was seen speaking with Solskjaer at the end of Saturday’s Premier League encounter
This is perhaps the hardest profile to match per Ferdinand’s description. However, Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi does fit these characteristics.
The Nigerian has excelled at the Foxes and has done a brilliant job in providing the defensive shield that the club lost when they sold N’Golo Kante to Chelsea four years ago.
The 23-year-old is excellent at winning the ball back in midfield before starting attacks and has good positional sense – like current United incumbent Nemanja Matic. However, where they differ is that Ndidi is a lot more mobile than the Serb, while also eight years younger.
Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi (left) would fit the midfield description of Ferdinand
United’s abundance of options
Despite the above, if there is one area that Manchester United are well-stocked in it is central midfield. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are automatic starters, while Matic has had a new lease of life since the turn of the year. On Monday morning he signed a new deal keeping him at the club until 2023 – highlighting his significance to Solskjaer.
Behind Matic in the defensive pecking order are McTominay and Fred – two players who made key contributions for United this season too.
Nemanja Matic put pen to paper on a new deal at Manchester United running through to 2023
In attack, the obvious answer appears to be Jadon Sancho. The Borussia Dortmund winger has been long been linked with a transfer to Manchester United.
The 20-year-old would be an automatic starter in Solskjaer’s line-up and it would be a true statement of intent to United’s rivals.
Sancho provides skill, poise, end product and overall X-factor that would provide another weapon in United’s armoury and his numbers this season testify to that. In 32 Bundesliga games for Dortmund he scored an incredible 17 goals alongside 16 assists as they finished second. This output made him Dortmund’s top goalscorer and assist-maker in the league.
Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho would be an automatic starter in United’s line-up on the right wing
In addition, the England international would fill a void that United have failed to fill for numerous seasons. He would also be tailor-made for the No 7 shirt should outcast Alexis Sanchez be sold.
Regular watchers of the Old Trafford side have seen the team lack a right-wing presence for years now. The only width has come from the full backs in the shape of ex-players Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, both former wingers converted, or more recently Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Diogo Dalot. Although it must be noted that Mason Greenwood is excelling in the current United line-up on the right wing.
One stumbling block for any Sancho deal will be the transfer fee though. Dortmund will command a fee of £100m for the precocious talent, while United are mindful not to spend that sort of money in the current economic climate due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sancho finished the Bundesliga campaign as Dortmund’s top goalscorer and assist-maker
Another attack-minded player who has been linked with the Theatre of Dreams is Jack Grealish. The Aston Villa captain has been the club’s beacon of light – despite being mired in the relegation zone.
Grealish has scored eight goals and provided seven assists in Dean Smith’s struggling team – with his performances having caught the eye of many, including Solskjaer.
The 24-year-old’s versatility would make him a shrewd acquisition to the Norwegian too, with Grealish able to play in central midfield, as a No 10 or out wide. The latter would seem a more likely role with United currently excelling in midfield with Fernandes, Pogba and Matic as the first-choice trio.
Like Ake at Bournemouth, if Aston Villa do get relegated then the playmaker could be sold at a cut-price offer instead of his current £80m valuation.
Jack Grealish could be sold by Aston Villa at a cut-price offer if they are relegated this season
Don’t forget about Mason Greenwood…
Some United supporters may believe that the club do not need to sign an automatic starter as they have a tailor-made option who has come through the academy ranks and is making his mark on the first-team already in Greenwood.
The 18-year-old is rightly earning plaudits for his performances and demonstrated his quality with two excellent goals against Bournemouth on Saturday. The teenager has the rare ability of being truly-ambidextrous with both feet as his brace at the weekend proved further.
Speaking post-match, Solskjaer hailed him as the ‘best finisher’ he’s worked with after he took his goal tally to 15 for the season in all competitions.
Greenwood, who has been compared to former fan favourite Robin van Persie, is quickly developing into a key player for the Red Devils – although it must be stressed that he is only 18. Signing another attacker may hinder his development in terms of game-time, but it also may allow him to play through the middle more and bolster United’s central options that way alongside Anthony Martial, Odion Ighalo and Marcus Rashford.
Mason Greenwood (left) scored two goals for United at the weekend as he continues to shine