Manchester United sealed their place in the Champions League with a 2-0 victory over Leicester City in their final match of a rollercoaster Premier League campaign.
But – having finally delivered the Red Devils a return to Europe’s elite – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now faces a crucial off-season where improving his squad in the transfer market must be a top priority.
United great Gary Neville says he expects Ole to mirror Jose Mourinho, who immediately spent spent £170m ($306m) after delivering Manchester United’s previous top-three finish.
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“It’s a big day for Ole,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “It will give him some peace. It demonstrates the progression we have seen in the last few months. The team are better, they are younger and they can play a different way now than they could at the start of the season.
“They were really basic in the sense they just played counter-attack [earlier in the season].
“With Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, and Mason Greenwood emerging, they look like they can play different ways and win different ways.
“But when you play the same team, that first eleven, for a week or two, they start to get fatigued. That demonstrates they need more players in the squad.
“The last time Manchester United finished in the top three was under Jose Mourinho and they spent £170m ($306m) that summer.
“United need to invest money again but do it correctly this time. The squad needs improving, the team needs improving. First and foremost, they need to improve the first eleven.”
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The opening goal in Leicester couldn’t have been more fitting.
Bruno Fernandes sent Anthony Martial into the box, before the Frenchman was fouled under a combined tackle from Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan.
Fernandes coolly converted the resulting penalty, the £67 million man sealing United’s return to Europe’s top competition – and proving once again that he has revolutionised the Red Devils.
When the Portuguese midfield superstar was signed by United on January 30, Manchester United were a full 14 points behind the Foxes. Six months later, United came out on top of their rivals – both on the day and on the ladder.
And Fernandes has been at the heart of their success.
Since his league debut in February, he has been directly involved in more goals (15) in the competition than any other player, notching eight goals and seven assists.
He helped United forge a 14-game unbeaten run in the Premier League (W9 D5); and his combination with Martial – on display against Leicester – helped the striker to achieve the best season of his career.
Martial was United’s joint-top scorer season with 22 goals (17 of those in the Premier League), and was arguably the best on ground against Leicester.
He has taken up a vital role in United’s attack, and has proved himself worthy of wearing the No. 9 jersey he was given after the departure of Romelu Lukaku.
The second goal couldn’t have come from a more unexpected source. Jesse Lingard – the outcast, the flop – was gifted possession by Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel and passed the ball into an open net.
It was the 27-year-old’s first goal or assist in the 2019/20 Premier League campaign.
In fact, not since January 2019 had he been involved in a Premier League goal, with an assist in a draw with Burnley.
His most recent league strike was even longer ago, coming in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game in charge in December 2018 against Cardiff.
Since then, Solskjaer has significantly boosted the quality in the United dressing room and the quality of the product on the park.
He was ecstatic after delivering United just their third top-four finish in the seven Premier League seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
“It’s a massive achievement by the staff and players. They are incredible … We’re building a culture. I’m very pleased and proud of their efforts.
“To win this game was massive mentally as we’ve lost two semi-finals.”
But for his side to challenge for the title next season – while competing against Europe’s best – there is little doubt that further reinforcements are necessary.
Sky Sports pundits were in agreement that “the squad needs improving”, particularly in the starting side.
Roy Keane labelled it a “job well done” for United, while also anticipating serious action in the transfer market.
He told Sky Sports: “Credit to United. The performance wasn’t great but it’s a job well done. All credit to the United players and Ole and their staff. This was a big step for them.
“If you work at Man Utd, you’ll always have money available. But regarding the recruitment, if United had not got the Champions League it would have been very difficult.
“All the top players have to and want to play in the Champions League, so that gives Ole better options when he goes to speak to these players. He needs to get backing and I’m pretty sure, having qualified now, he’ll get that backing.”
Having made big-name acquisitions in central midfield (Fernandes) and defence (Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka), it remains to be seen where Ole will look to improve his side.
But with the transfer window opening today – and the new season kicking off on September 12 – he’s got precious little time to waste.