Balance crucial to squad rebuild

Solskjaer finished not just inside top four positions in the English Premier League but third overcoming Chelsea, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers. That in itself is quite a remarkable achievement considering the surprise losses suffered to Crystal Palace, Newcastle United, Bournemouth, Watford, Burnley apart from regular concessions to West Ham, Arsenal and Liverpool especially since the inspirational transfer of Bruno Fernandes in late January as they have dropped just 8 points of possible 42 and remained unbeaten! A tale of two halves. All credit must go to the coaching staff who meticulously planned to keep the players engaged through out the suspension, the medical staff who ensured all players were fit for the season finale, the manager who finally found his starting XI by giving everyone a fair chance and MUFC board who backed the manager by spending huge on Bruno Fernandes mid-season.
In this tough economic climate the qualification for Champions' League gives the club a safety net of earnings much higher than otherwise. Though not in the same breadth as gaining promotion just before second world war to ensure funds in global economic recession, suspension of league for seven seasons and bombing of Old Trafford. Future is yet uncertain but the world is perhaps at its most precarious since September, 1939.

Challenge will be to add not only 2-3 first team players at right wing, centre-half and midfield but also replace the deadwood of Chris Smalling(36 starts on loan), Alexis Sanchez(15 starts on loan), Jesse Lingard(18), Phil Jones(6), Marcus Rojo(7) and resolve the future of Juan Mata(19), Andreas Pereira(22), Diogo Dalot(7). That's eight fringe players with 51 and 79 first team starts at loan and for United respectively out of 58 competitive matches played so far this season. From previous financial calls its believed United have 135 million euro's available after deducting Bruno Fernandes outlay. If Jadon Sancho is prioritized then it leaves room for perhaps only one or two more signing, there in lies the question of balance.

On losing to West Ham in Sep 2018, Jose Mourinho's in his last season called into question the role of United scouts who had failed to identify and sign a centre-half all summer. Not just first choice like Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, Jerome Boateng, Diogo Godin but none of the upcoming players like Issa Diop who played brilliantly for hammers that day. Now the same scouting team has a chance to redeem in getting left sided centre-half Gabriel dos Santos Magalhaes preferably or Pau Torres of Villareal, and left back Fode Ballo-Toure of Monaco to Old Trafford. This will fit the budget constraints if United move for Jadon Sancho who theoretically can move at much lower price next year as he is in final two years of his contract with Borussia Dotmund. Unless Dotmund do not budge from their high asking price of 110 million euro and negotiations conclude by 10th August as requested by BVB the deal could be at risk. Apparently there is no interest from any other clubs for Sancho so its up to United to conclude. Crucial for United to reduce the initial fee to 60-70 million with add-on's to balance the funds for entire transfer window across multiple targets. Deal on 7th August for 20 year old to wear the famous number 7 jersey!
Aston Villa have reportedly increased their asking price for skipper Jack Grealish from #50 to #80 million after avoiding relegation, hence Donny van de Beek of Ajax at about #40 million becomes more viable. If Paul Pogba stays Grealish or Donny van de Beek interest can be put on hold and contract talks need to start immediately with the Frenchman to avoid risk of letting him go for free next season, but if he chooses to leave then already crammed window with Europa League fixtures becomes even more hectic. After Micheal Carrick swooped all awards at the famous West Ham academy at the start of this century and eventually replaced Roy Keane to the number 16 jersey via Tottenham, its time to hunt for Nemanja Matic's long term successor in another east London prodigy in Declan Rice who has matched Carrick's fete. Chelsea remain favourites to resign their ex-academy graduate but as a centre-half where as at United he is viewed as a central defensive midfield which might sway the decision. For James Garner at 19 to fill this crucial role will take 3-4 years for him to develop. United might not be able to sign all three Sancho, Rice and Grealish during this transfer window.

One player who has no issue is keeper Dean Henderson the Sheffield United young player of the year at maximum age of 23 for the award. With Euro 2021 in view, Solskjaer can help him play regularly for one more season at Bramall Lane thus enabling him to make the England squad given that there are questions on current number one Jordan Pickford. From United point of view David de Gea gets a boost of confidence and final chance in his 10th season to resurrect his legendary status. Sergio Romero now enters his final year of contract at the end of which Henderson can be eased into United.

Setting free transfers for Phil Jones to any club and Marcus Rojo to non-EPL clubs will free up their wages from United player salaries as they have proved most difficult to sell. United must not fall for bait of AS Roma asking for another loan but only agree to sell Smalling outright. Sanchez having played well in last few games for Inter must be pushed through with no obligation to pay any part of his huge wages though this will limit the amount of transfer fee. A change of scene for Lingard will be more beneficial to regain his form that has dipped since the semi-finals with England at the 2018 World Cup. United conservatively should expect to make 60 million euros for these sales and also a percentage from Memphis Depay and Wilfred Zaha sale.

Juan Mata's off-field charity work through Common Goal shades his on-field effort but his technique and professionalism is something junior members of the squad can learn from. United players contractually obligated might have to prefer MU Foundation thus one sees no players having joined Mata's charity that now boasts Megan Rapinoe, Paulo Dybala, Serge Gnabry, Kasper Schmeichel, Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann. Pereira and Dalot might have something to offer and should be looked to offload next year if things do not turn out better.

Refreshingly last year United bought Daniel James from Championship and contributed immensely in the early stages of the campaign including a goal on debut versus Chelsea. This approach must not be abandoned. Promotion of Leeds United rules out any chance of signing Kalvin Phillips. Other interesting prospects remain in Matheus Pereira CAM from West Brom, Eberechi Eze CAM from QPR, Jed Wallace RW from Milwall, Joe Rodon CH from Swansea, Joe Bryan and Rico Henry both LB from Fulham and Brentford, Matthew Cash RB from Nottingham.

Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams had a successful breakthrough this season from the academy. Next season expecting right back Ethan Laird, defender Tenden Mengi and midfielders Dylan Levitt and Hannibal Mejbri. James Garner and Tahith Chong are expected to go on a season long loan. Injury to centre-half Axel Tuanzebe limited his appearances this season. Despite losing Angel Gomes and missing out on Jude Bellingham, United have landed 16 year old keeper from Slovakia Radek Vitek in January and striker Joe Hugill and defender Logan Pye from Sunderland. Awaiting clearance for foreign recruits in Marc Jurado from Barcelona, Alvaro Fernandez Carreras from Real Madrid and Isak Hansen-Aaroen from Tromso. United won three awards at Premier League Academy awards: Marcus Rashford for best Academy Graduate, coach Tony Whelan won the Eammon Dolan award and James Garner for PL2 goal of the season award.

Resolving the issue of deadwood with reasonable returns is crucial to make this transfer window a success. The oft lethargic and slow negotiating team of Matt Judge needs to act fast and not work on just one transfer at a time. Importantly he needs to be given independence to make calls without back and forth with Glazer's operating in different time zones, this is what Ed Woodward as chief executive needs to fix. At corporate level he must ensure dividends are not paid this year as football reels under economic austerity. In last three days of January window United did sign three players Nathan Bishop, Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo. Rivals Chelsea and Man City moving fast to tie-down their players, United can't afford to stand still. With EPL starting on 12th September and Europa League final on 21st August, Solskjaer will need all signings to be completed in August itself irrespective of end of transfer window being 5th October. Signings and exits in total might reach double digits leaving United no time to lose.

Over to Ed and Matt from Solskjaer and fans.

Cliffhanger end to a season of great progress in United rebuild

Manchester United need to win or draw their last English Premier League match of 2019-20 campaign to ensure a top four finish to qualify for the lucrative Champions' League. They face one of season long contenders in Leicester City, 5th in the table who have only won once against United at home since 1998 in Sep, 2014 a 5-3 win. Leicester City will be without their main creator James Maddison, two full backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira, and centre-half Caglar Soyuncu. Ever reliable Kasper Schmeichel in goal, ex-United centre-half Johnny Evans, best CDM in Wilfred Ndidi and Jamie Vardy with 23 goals this season can thwart United. Match is being played while the city of Leicester is in lock down to contain the corona virus pandemic. Their coach Brendan Rodgers made this sound like David vs Goliath "We have one shot arriving into the last game – against Manchester United, one of the superpowers of world football – to make it into the Champions League."

Harry Maguire will become the first outfield player since Gary Pallister to play in all games of a season and had this to say about the importance of this match "For this club, the gaffer keeps reiterating that the last two or three weeks of a season always decide the season really and you want to get yourselves in a position where you’re challenging for your targets. In the near future we don’t want to be challenging for the top four, we want to be challenging for the league."  David de Gea will be doing this for the second straight season.
Mason Greenwood become only the fourth United player to score 17 goals while still being a teenager behind the legendary George Best, Brian Kidd and Wayne Rooney. He also became the youngest player to make 50 appearances for the club since Ryan Giggs in 1992. Biggest compliment came from league all-time leading goal scorer Alan Shearer on BBC Match of Day: "A potential superstar. I respect the power, he can do it with his left or right foot. He gets it away early and the goalkeepers have no chance. I think in 12 or 13 years time we could be talking about the Premier League record goalscorer. I know there's so many things that can happen in your career but I think he's that good. He's 18 years of age, he's going to get bigger, he's going to get better."

33 points is the gap with champions Liverpool which is huge and Solskjaer having stuck with only 11 players recently has highlighted the poor bench strength. United will look to improve by adding in a few primary positions like right wing, centre-half and backups in midfield, defense. Ed Woodward in program notes vs West Ham sounded pragmatic amid the pandemic unsure of precise outlook and exact impact on clubs finances where debt has soared past 400 million pounds "We are fortunate to have a strong and resilient commercial business which has supported long-term investment in our team. That will continue, albeit with extra caution in the coming months as we navigate our way through this uncertain period." 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's rebuild has taken United through the following and back to its roots of playing attacking football and promoting youth; reminding of Busby and Ferguson and for that alone he needs to be backed for the coming seasons:
At the start of the season had predicted 6th place finish without Bruno Fernandes, given that it has been an underwhelming Premier League season due to improper induction of VAR, first time introduction of winter break, enforced break due to the pandemic, league decided by December as rest of the pack folded, many other rivals in Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham under performing, at 63 or 66 is still perhaps the lowest points total for Champions' League qualification. Yet after the first match statistically had predicted that when United score four goals on opening day they have always finished in top four.

Although United had slip ups at Upton Park in 1995 and loss of league title to Man City on final day on goal difference in 2012, they have also kept their nerve by getting the better of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle in 1996, coming from behind to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the treble season of 1999 and in 2007-08 when they did the league and Champions' League double. Big difference is those were title challenging last day of the season, not for 4th spot which underlines the present reality of the club. Since the restart United have been flying buoyed by Bruno Fernandes and wonder what might have been if he had been signed last summer itself. They are unbeaten in last 13 matches but exhaustion has crept in with 11 matches in 5 weeks taking its toll. #LEIMUN will be an exciting end to another Premier League season. Matter of keeping the nerve.

Come on you reds, come on you reds
Just keep your bottle and use your heads
For ninety minutes we'll let them know
Who's Man United, here we go

Trust Solskjaer to take a call on De Gea

FA Cup semi-final 1-3 loss to Chelsea at Wembley was this season's worst performance - resting Pogba, changing a winning formation, tired players who didn't turn up and David de Gea's two howlers. Solskjaer needs to immediately get back to winning ways to secure the lucrative Champions' League spot. Last season United lost tamely to Wolves in FA Cup quarter-finals after a run of good results that effectively derailed the season winning just two of last nine games and missed top four finish.

Solskjaer set the stall of the press conference as soon question on David de Gea was raised "This is not going to become a David De Gea press conference, We're just going to stick together." Will David de Gea be dropped after a steady decline over last two years that culminated in the shambolic display last Sunday in London? Sir Alex Ferguson had a similar conundrum when his then main keeper Jim Leighton had a bad day in the 1990 FA Cup final drawing 3-3 with Crystal Palace when in fact the loss of form was glaring from 0-4 loss at Nottingham Forest earlier and two unconvincing displays against Oldham Athletic in semi-final that also needed a replay. To make the call for the final replay Ferguson watched Leighton's response to the loss which was "In the dressing-room afterwards I noticed Jim Leighton with his head in his hands, completely shattered. I went over and gave him a pat but received no response. He looked to me like a beaten man." recalled Ferguson in his finest autobiography 'Managing My Life' co-written with perhaps the best football writer ever Hugh McIlvanney.

Alternative the Argentine Sergio Romero only plays in secondary matches of Cups in League, FA Cup and Europa League even with about 59 games in 5 seasons does not warrant a start in an extremely important league match. Again going back Les Sealey who deputized brilliantly in place of Jim Leighton in the FA Cup final replay which United won 1-0, Ferguson recalls "Les was cocky and at times downright arrogant, so I did not foresee a failure of his nerve at Wembley. Was he a better goalkeeper than Jim? No." Appearances can be deceiving and language another barrier for foreign players but is Sergio Romero who has been capped 96 times for Argentina confident going into today's game against West Ham United having not played a single English Premier League match this season and importantly was poor against Norwich in FA Cup quarter-finals which made Solskjaer to drop him for Chelsea? Think not.

Barring Luke Shaw's injury Solskjaer might choose the same lineup which played in five consecutive games from Sheffield United to Southampton scoring 16 goals, conceding 4, getting 13 points out of maximum 15: de Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, Lindelof, Maguire, Matic, Pogba, Fernandes, Greenwood, Martial, Rashford. Timothy Fosu-Mensah might play if Shaw is unfit ahead of rookie Brandon Williams. Maguire and de Gea are on course to play in all 38 matches this season, today's game will be number 37. United lost another Busby babe in Alex Dawson the former centre-forward who played a prominent role immediately after Munich air-crash that fast-forwarded his inclusion in the first team ahead of time as the club did not have sufficient senior players having forever lost eight of them plus two more to injury that is almost their first starting XI.

West Ham managed for the second time by former United manager David Moyes comes to Old Trafford in good form by beating Norwich and Watford to escape relegation. Micheal Antonio and Tomas Soucek have contributed immensely and will dominate aerially where MUFC are weak. Declan Rice and Issa Diop being previously linked with MUFC will want to give a solid display to increase their prospects for the future. Moyes does not have a good record vs MUFC at Old Trafford with both Everton and Sunderland. Last time an ex-United manager won at Old Trafford was Dave Sexton with Coventry City in Mar, 1982 who did the double eventually with Les Sealey in goal for the sky blues and if Moyes succeeds in today's game West Ham also will complete the double. MUFC lost 0-2 at the London Stadium when Manuel Pellegrini was in charge at West Ham in September.

Moyes was wrong to say that the only difference between him and Solskjaer was "Ole has been given time." Question was not about time because although he inherited an aging side with most of the players coming towards the end of their careers, he also dismantled the backroom staff of Sir Alex Ferguson who had developed and accumulated so much knowledge of the game over the years; and secondly Moyes had a very bad transfer window with only Fellaini in summer and Mata in January coming in. Solskjaer spotted this glaring error and was quick to bring back Ferguson's assistant Mike Phelan as his number two. Moyes in short blew his chance as Rio Ferdinand also recounted when he tried to do everything at perhaps the biggest club in the world in Manchester United instead of delegating to his trusted staff to take decisions.

The crunch match that United fans recollect was the final game of 1994-95 season when leaders Blackburn Rovers lost to Liverpool and United needing to beat West Ham at Upton Park could only draw failing to take advantage and not win the league. Hammers celebrated as if they had won the title! Today's match is at Old Trafford where United are unbeaten in 12 matches with Anthony Martial scoring in the last five. West Ham have had more time to prepare and so will Leicester City who get a week before facing Manchester United this Sunday. United players will no doubt be geared up to finish the season on a high to represent in Europe's best competition next season and to remove the 25% wage cut if they do not qualify for the Champion's League again. Matches with West Ham at this stage of the season will always be interesting to say the least.

One match at a time can do the trick for United

Prospect to face the joint holders for the most semi-finals, 30 times with Arsenal and to equal their record for most FA Cup wins, 13 will galvanize Manchester United in today's clash at Wembley against Chelsea. Secret for any sides unbeaten run is to consider one match at a time after having consistently done long term planning, example Solskjaer picking Timothy Fosu-Mensah for his first appearance in more than two years to play against the club where he was previously loaned out and Nemanja Matic did not start against Palace considering this semi-final clash. United have faced Chelsea in each of the last four seasons in the FA Cup, losing twice including the 2018 final and avenging that loss in 5th round 2019 before surrendering tamely to Wolves in quarter-finals.

Results in the last match day of English Premier League week 36 meant United guarantee a top five finish and winning 2-0 away to Crystal Palace where VAR decisions hogged the headlines lifts the pressure slightly to give this semi-final clash the importance it deserves. Frank Lampard chose to pick on those decisions to put the referee under pressure ahead of this game. Solskjaer expertly responded "Well, how long have we got? I can sit here for hours now and try to talk about this. It looks like there's a narrative. It looks like people want to influence whoever's making the decisions, but I hear people talking about luck." Confidently taking aim at comments made by both Lampard and Mourinho. "Then, if you look at the factual decisions - I don't want to sound like a certain manager, talking about facts - but if you're offside, you're offside. That's clear. Talking about lucky, the penalty that we got against Tottenham in the last minute that was taken away from us, that might be two points for us." Blues will be without influential N'golo Kante while Luke Shaw will miss out due to injury for the Reds.

Repeatedly Solskjaer has stressed the need to win the first trophy for his young team to become springboard of sustained success "It's important for this team to win their first trophy or to get to their first final together. That will help the winning culture because we have to start winning things." Momentum is crucial in the season ending run-in of games to achieve the goals be it finishing in top four or winning either FA Cup or Europa League Cup. United with 19 games unbeaten have it and now more than ever its about sustaining it to the last day of the season.

Win in extra time against relegated Norwich clearly suggests that personnel picked for FA Cup thus far in Romero, Bailly, Dalot, Lingard need not be persisted with for today's game. Ighalo was sharp to score the goal and might lead the line and spoke about his desire to better the semi-final loss while he was with Watford. Skipper Harry Maguire has played in every game which makes him a definite starter. De Gea for Romero in goal, Williams for Shaw, Wan-Bissaka for Dalot, Maguire, Lindelof, Matic, Pogba, Fernandes, Mata, Ighalo and Rashford to start. Martial and Greenwood on the bench. In the last league match a 2-1 win Solskjaer used 3-5-2 as Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba were injured and both being available for today he might prefer to play in the predominant formation used during this unbeaten run 4-3-3.

Will Tommy Docherty make it to Wembley to watch the two famous teams he managed? At 92 would be eagerly watching from home due to the pandemic hoping for a great attacking game of football. At the core of both teams are the youth pushing through from academy aided by young managers doing a rebuild. Wembley will present its own challenges as Geoffrey Green famously pointed in 1949 "That immaculate stretch of Wembley turf . . . its rich, thick surface being something not found by April on any club enclosure in the country, and this means that many a ground pass is not given sufficient bite, and falls short of objective. The proportions of the huge stadium are another, making distances so difficult to judge in the opening phases." Gone are the twin towers in the new Wembley but the world's oldest cup competition FA Cup these days devoid of famous upsets still offers fantastic opportunity to create amazing footballing memories. United fans of certain vintage hope to seek retribution of Alan Sunderland's goal for Arsenal in 1979 after United clawed a two goal deficit to level the match, and recently in 2005 where United again lost to Arsenal on penalties in the Millennium stadium when Wembley was under construction. Chelsea stand in the way.

Test of Solskjaer's mettle

Solskjaer knows only too well how Manchester United fell short of Champions' League qualification at the end of last season after a brilliant first three months in charge; winning just two in last nine games. Now he is leading another charge to secure a top four finish that is critical to developing the team for next season. Second successive season outside top four will cost the club a reduced fee from sponsors especially adidas, even if it can be spread across the next five years to lessen the impact it does not hide the handicap. Importantly the Norwegian legend would not want to be tagged as a 'choker' which will be too hard to shrug off even if he has overturned 0-2 deficit against PSG or did the double over Pep Guardiola's City. In this context FA Cup doesn't become a priority where they face Chelsea in semi-finals on Sunday.

If Luke Shaw and Mason Greenwood can recover then the same starting XI might be fielded against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park for the sixth straight game. Diogo Dalot hasn't convinced as an able understudy while gulf in class is apparent between 18 year old Mason Greenwood and 22 year old Daniel James. Saints were lucky as VAR failed to do its job to send off Romeu whose studs were all over Greenwood's shin. Substitutions were needed in the second half as Southampton's work rate was starting to overtake which underscores the poor bench strength and overtures to Donny van de Beek and Jack Grealish with summer transfer window opening on 27, July till 05, October. Double injury blow to Shaw and his substitute Williams meant United were down to 10 men to protect a slender 2-1 lead and failed. Earlier Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both scored and missed a couple of chances which could have sealed the game.

With experience this team will overcome these lapses as the personnel are constant so learning will not be lost next season. Anthony Martial's work rate represented what a traditional number nine should always do, nick the ball of opposition to create a goal. He has clearly taken his game to a new level post lock down just as Marcus Rashford had a splendid first half of the season. Pair of strikers pushing each other to greater heights is a treat to watch. Martial became the first player since Wayne Rooney in March, 2008 to notch up 50 English Premier League goals, while Rashford is on 43. David de Gea played in his 400th game.

Roy Hodgson will want to end Crystal Palace's five match losing streak with a win that would mean a league double over United a first in their history. Last win for Eagles at Selhurst Park came in May, 1991 when Andrei Kanchelskis made his debut for United signing from Shaktar Donetsk in March and wore the famous number 7 jersey initially before Eric Cantona made it his own. He scored a hat-trick in the derby against City in a 5-0 win in Nov, 1994. The last player whom Sir Alex Ferguson signed for Manchester United in Wilfred Zaha might play on the opposite wing to not face Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right wing who said this of Ivorian "Training against Wilf, I think he sort of prepared me for what it is like playing in the Premier League. I learned a lot from him. He's an unpredictable player and tests like that are ones that made me a better player." Zaha also played under Solskjaer while at Cardiff City. Without suspended Benteke and injured duo Cahill and Tomkins task will get only tougher.

Instead of nine matches last season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has just three to make sure United finish in top four and that reduction in gap in itself a indication of the right direction in which the club is heading. With third place Leicester needing to face Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United on the last day the task is within reach without needing other results to go favourably. This match becomes important to sustain the unbeaten streak of 18 games and see through a goal of top four finish to completion. Bruno Fernandes has been the stand out player away from home and today Solskjaer will not want to substitute him too soon in the second half! Solskjaer will want to not only overcome the jitters of 'squeaky bum time' but eager for his team to show the spirit of 'bouncebackability' a term coined by former Palace boss Iain Dowie who got them promoted to Premier League in 2003-04.

De Gea is undoubtedly United's player of the decade

David de Gea will eclipse Manchester United's greatest ever goal keeper Peter Schmeichel's record of 398 appearances when the Red Devils take on Aston Villa at Villa Park today. He will become the second most capped goal keeper behind Alex Stepney whose tally is 539. de Gea having shined brilliantly by winning the player of the year awards four of five seasons between 2013-17 that has enabled United to retain their top 6 status to play in Europe despite having a very poor team in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era has made him a torchbearer much like Bryan Robson in the 1980's.

That game away at Arsenal with 14 saves was the zenith of this middle period where literally he saved the club from losing or drawing vital games and thereby always ensured United stay in the hunt for European places while making them punch above their weight consistently.



Manuel Neuer was the bookies favourite to don the gloves at Old Trafford especially after playing well against United in the Champions' League semi-final loss in 2011 when he was with Schalke. Ferguson did not want a repeat of mistakes following the retirement of Peter Schmeichel when he promoted or brought a string of under-achievers starting with Raimond van der Gouw, Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard; others like Massimo Taibi, Any Goram (on loan) and Ricardo were brought to challenge them. In short the goal keeping position was a mess at United for five seasons considering Ferguson is the greatest manager of all time!

de Gea replaced the retiring Edwin van de Sar who had six trophy laden years that was a tough act to follow. He came to United aged only 20 after having won the UEFA Cup with Atletico Madrid. Sir Alex Ferguson persisted with signing the Spaniard after pulling out to sign Petr Cech at a similar age. At United, de Gea struggled with the physicality of the league initially as he himself at 20 years of age was still developing. United devised a programme to help him add muscle mass.

The first match of 2011-12 season was his league debut vs West Brom when let slip a soft goal after a barrage in the penalty box that Ferguson described as his 'welcome to England' in his autobiography, thankfully United won 2-1 to his rescue. He was even challenged by Anders Lindegaard to be the No.1. Weathering out those early hiccups he has emerged as the best shot stopper in the world over the last decade. He has won the league title under Ferguson, FA Cup under Louis van Gaal, UEFA Cup and League Cup under Jose Mourinho. Champions' League medal is the main prize missing from his trophy cabinet.

Sir Alex Ferguson on challenges facing a young keeper: "David couldn't speak the language and he had to learn to drive, another illustration of how young he was. It could never be easy for a goalkeeper coming to England from Continental Europe at 20 years of age." Gigi Buffon was 23 when he joined Juventus from Parma in 2001 and Petr Cech was 22 on joining Chelsea from Rennes in 2004.

He was in the running to be named Club Captain but his frank answer perhaps to questions about United's style of play cost him. This season Ashley Young started as the Captain and de Gea was in the reckoning until his reaction to a shock 1-0 loss to Newcastle on 6th October "The most difficult time since I’ve been here. I don’t know why, what is happening. Sorry to the fans.", made Solskjaer pick Harry Maguire instead. Not since Jack Mew immediately after first world war has United not had a goal keeper as Club Captain. It shows an utter lack of recognition to this vitally important position especially since United have had legends like Stepney, Schmeichel, van der Sar all having won the European Cup or Champions' League with the club.

Oft talked about criticism is that he does not come out to attack the ball floated out from a corner kick to command his penalty box. Since the retirement of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic he hasn't had a steady centre-back pairs patrolling the defense. This could now change with tall and steady Harry Maguire in front of him. He has a poor record of saving penalty kicks given that early on he saved a penalty from Robin van Persie in that 8-2 win over Arsenal. Taking cue from Sir Matt Busby helping Frank Swift during his playing career with City, Solskjaer being a former striker can help de Gea.
What next? This is his third phase where he is getting used to making fewer yet critical saves and perceptible change in levels of concentration required compared to the second phase of his United career where he was bombarded relentlessly by the opposition in a poor team. Can he break Alex Stepney's record? Certainly. There is more in common between the two: they both came to United at a young age and won trophies in last years of United's two greatest managers Busby and Ferguson while having to see barren, struggling years later on. Early thirties is considered golden period for goal keepers and de Gea only turns 30 this November. Stepney also had a great goal keeper as his understudy in Jimmy Rimmer who won European Cup twice first with United in 1968 and later with Aston Villa in 1982. Dean Henderson's rise at Sheffield United and dip in form of de Gea has let to lots of speculation.

The flattening of transfer market due to pandemic and lack of open positions at other leading European clubs like Madrid or PSG or Juventus coupled with David de Gea being highest earning player at United (discounting Alexis Sanchez who is loaned out) has ensured there is no clear cut answer. Schmeichel drawing on his immense knowledge made this assessment “David is our no.1 - he’s still a young lad, by the way. He could play on for another 10 years. Let’s back him. We should support what we have because we know what we have is really good.” Schmeichel tops with 180 clean sheets with one of the best defenses compared to 140 by de Gea in 398 games for United, while Edwin van de Sar has 135, Gary Bailey has 161 and Alex Stepney is at 175 at the end of their careers.

de Gea is the only United player to have won Sir Matt Busby player of the year award four times! "It's amazing to play for the club, the history, the fans, everything. It was hard in the beginning, but I believed in myself, I worked hard and I am proud of myself as well. I want to say thanks to everyone. I didn't expect to win this one. I have four, it's amazing for me and thanks again to everyone.”

Over the nine years David de Gea has become fans favourite and endears them further by active social media presence and interaction with fans especially the younger ones. Like the talisman Bryan Robson lifted the league title and retired, most fans believe it will be far easier for United to win back the English Premier League and perhaps Champions' League with David de Gea in goal. #DaveSaves need to considered in the same manner of superlatives as goals of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo through the last decade irrespective of United not challenging for Champions' League honours. David de Gea can become United's undisputed greatest keeper in this decade under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. For world football in general he has perhaps blazed a trail for young goal keepers to become mainstay of the first team.

Point to prove and avoid the double by Cherries

United this season have never won the game when their direct top four rivals in Chelsea have slipped up first. Drawn with Wolves and lost to Burnley, Liverpool, Arsenal when Chelsea had dropped points recently. Now the Blues have lost to their local rivals West Ham and United response is awaited with the visit of Bournemouth to Old Trafford today who are aiming to do the first double over the Red Devils having won the reverse fixture 1-0 in November which was one of the most dismal away performances by Solskjaer's side amid rain and injury to Scott McTominay.

The Norwegian was pragmatic when asked about the seemingly easy run-in against teams from the bottom half of the table whom United have not beaten this season: "I've seen lots of quotes that we have an easy run in. But then the next five games they are against Bournemouth, we lost to them in the previous game. Aston Villa, we drew to them at home at Old Trafford. We have Southampton, which we drew to, we lost to Palace, we lost to West Ham, so there's teams that we've got a point to prove against." If the attitude to prove the doubters wrong is maintained it can be an advantage.

Solskjaer deserves to eclipse the 17 game unbeaten record of Mourinho from Nov, 2016 to Jan, 2017 and is approaching game number 16 today. Finally he has a starting XI that picks itself up and, will they start for third game in a row after astounding 3-0 wins over Sheffield United and Brighton & Hove Albion? Young Mason Greenwood could be rested and instead Daniel James might start. Bruno Fernandes took a knock but might still start and come off in the second half. Fred had a run of more than 20 consecutive games that really transformed him this season and could be back if Matic is to be rested. Eric Bailly has not been convincing to dislodge either Maguire or Lindelof based on that FA Cup win away to Norwich. Andreas looks much better than Lingard to deserve to be in the match day squad. Giving the newly promoted right back Ethan Laird a cameo would be superb.

Fine form has seen Solskjaer nominated for Manager of the Month award for June while Bruno Fernandes and Anthony Martial have been nominated for Player of the Month awards. Reports emerged from Germany informing of Borussia Dotmund completing a deal for Jude Bellingham. After Erling Haaland this is the second high profile teenager that has chosen BVB instead of United which confirms that although Red Devils have done a course correction under Solskjaer by appointing Nicky Butt as head of first team development at the start of this season, it is a recent appointment and sufficient time hasn't passed yet to see the desired results. Angel Gomes did not sign a new contract with United. Positive news on Jadon Sancho that he has agreed personal terms with United and now both clubs need to agree on a transfer price.

Home of AFC Bournemouth is Dean Court known commercially as Vitality Stadium is the only arena in the English Premier league with less than 20,000 capacity, to be precise its just 11,329 that is lowest in the league by a big margin. Five years in Premier League by Eddie Howe is fantastic. Bogged down by injuries to majority of the squad earlier in the season they haven't regained their form of last four years. Tough for them to get back into the top flight immediately if relegated. “If you’d have said to me 12, 15 years ago that Bournemouth would be playing in the Premier League one day, I’d have thought you were off your head. What’s happened here has just been beyond belief." Harry Redknapp who did a giant killing by managing the Cherries to win against defending champions MUFC in FA Cup 3rd round 1983-84. Following that 0-2 loss the first shouts of 'Atkinson Out' were chanted by United fans. United atoned that defeat by thrashing them 3-0 in next years FA Cup 3rd round!

George Best played his last 5 league games of his career for Bournemouth in Third Division in 1982-83 season whose aspiring owner wanted to double the gate receipts and that desired aim was achieved easily. In January when United were desperate for a back-up striker they had approached the former academy graduate Josh King now playing for the Cherries. If that would have clicked it would have been 3rd player to have been transferred directly between the two clubs and remarkably all three were strikers; other two being Jack Rowley 'the Gunner' scored 211 goals in 424 games for United despite the interruption of second world war, and Ted MacDougal a bona fide Cherries legend but flopped at United due to managerial changes. Thankfully Odion Ighalo has not disappointed. United must seize the chance given Leicester City are stuttering and Chelsea blowing hot-n-cold while Wolves are on United's heels.

Tough away test where United have lost in their last three visits

Brighton and Hove Albion have won the last three home games versus Manchester United which includes a 1-0 win in November 1982 and the last two games at the Falmer Stadium known commercially as AMEX arena. Its a sort of record that an top 4 aspiring team like Manchester United must beat who have changed their squad significantly with 5 players not in the team since the 1-0 loss in May 2018 - Darmian, Smalling, Rojo, Young and Fellaini.

The Seagulls are unbeaten since the restart with a draw at Leicester and a win against Arsenal. Both teams in top-half of the table! Snapping up the best talent from the Championship in Adam Webster and Neal Maupay their top scorer with 9 goals has yielded them great results. Graham Potter their coach wanted to sign Daniel James having being instrumental in his development when he managed the Welshman at Swansea but Wales manager Ryan Giggs' tip off to Solskjaer ensured Reds got him instead. In January transfer window they snapped up Chelsea youngster Tariq Lamptey. In both their home wins against United their German midfielder Pascal Gross has made crucial contributions but now comes on as a sub replaced by Australian Aaron Mooy in starting XI. Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy as centre-back pairing has given them the solid platform.

United needed extra time to get the better of Premier League's bottom club Norwich in the FA Cup quarter-finals with goal from captain Harry Maguire. Solskjaer made major changes to the squad by giving chance to the likes of Romero, Bailly, Dalot, Lingard, Mata and Ighalo. It was a tepid performance and soon enough the regulars were introduced in the second half to secure their 30th semi-final in the FA Cup a record they now share with Arsenal. It highlighted the lack of bench strength and their lack of match time as many of them previously had raised their game back in November to win this reverse fixture 3-1 in the absence of Pogba, Shaw and Matic. Then Andreas Pereira was ahead of the Jesse Lingard in team selection!

United are on a 14 match unbeaten run their best of the season so far coinciding with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. Solskjaer can name an unchanged side that won 3-0 against Sheffield United or reinstate James for Greenwood who has to be given consistent game time at the right of front three. Matches against the bottom half teams in Brighton, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace will improve their dismal record of just 4 away wins this season. With Chelsea beating City to move further up and Wolves leapfrogging United into fifth position, Solskjaer cannot afford a slip up.

Luke Shaw has played in all 14 of those matches and its refreshing to hear from Solskjaer about individual plans for every player and different stages of its development cause every player is different in physique, mentality and behaviour: “Well, we manage a squad and manage players differently and, as you say, Luke has had a good upturn in form. He had a spell out earlier on in the season and he's worked his way to full fitness. He's worked over the lock down and he's playing some good football. Let's see if he starts this one.” Best part was the last line - there are no guarantees at United and every player needs to earn his place.

Last United win away at Brighton was on 24th April, 1982 at Goldstone Ground a 1-0 result under Ron Atkinson with Ray Wilkins the scorer but headlines was made by Norman Whiteside making his debut coming on for Mike Duxbury. This made Whiteside the youngest debutant since the greatest Duncan Edwards. Whiteside's assist earned United a draw against the Seagulls in the 1983 FA Cup final and went one better in the replay to score to become the youngest ever. That year Whiteside had played in the 1982 World Cup for Northern Ireland breaking Pele's record to become the tournaments youngest player before the start of the season and ended it by scoring in both the FA Cup and League Cup finals!

"He had great vision, an exceptional football brain, and a mental picture of what was happening, second by split-second, in every game in which he played. Apart from all of that, he was also a clinically smooth finisher." Ron Atkinson who made Norman Whiteside captain United at just 20! 
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave that distinction to Marcus Rashford, aged 22 against Man City in the Carabao/League Cup in January earlier this season.

Fans favourite moniker is 'Scourge of the Scousers' as he lost just 2 games with United against arch rivals Liverpool in 19 encounters; the highlight being the goal in League Cup final leaving Alan Hansen for dead to score in just 2 minutes into the game. Return of his 1982 FA Youth Cup finalist team-mate Mark Hughes from Barcelona and mounting injuries made Sir Alex Ferguson to negotiate a good deal with Everton who were challenging for the title regularly in the 80's and won it twice. Injury forced him to retire at the age of just 26 and in 278 appearances scored 68 times for United. Sad to hear that he is selling his memorabilia to raise funds. He deserves a proper testimonial as the one arranged with Everton in May, 1992 only 7000 fans turned up as United had just lost the title challenge. Club should help buy precious items from his collection and re-arrange the testimonial.

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