In what was essentially a play-off for a Champions League place, Manchester United secured a close-fought 2-0 victory over Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. Leicester were arguably the better team for long periods against a United side who again looked short of fitness. In the end, though, another Bruno Fernandes penalty and a late Jesse Lingard goal clinched the victory United were desperate for.
How Manchester United Dragged Themselves Over the Line to Qualify for the Champions League
Big Win But More Needed
Make no mistake, this was a massive win for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side. Champions League football is a minimum requirement. The pressure to reach this objective, made difficult after a bad start to the season, has been evident in the last few games. Following on from draws against Southampton and West Ham United, United’s performance was again below par. Sloppy in position, and lethargic in their attacking play, United still need vast improvements in order to compete for big trophies next season.
Strength in Defence
One area where United were strong during the game was in defence. Victor Lindelöf and young left-back Brandon Williams were resolute in keeping the Leicester attack at bay. There have been many criticisms in this area but with 36 goals conceded all season, the third-best defensive record in the league behind Liverpool and Manchester City, it seems unjustified. Indeed, had it not been for some spectacular errors from goalkeeper David de Gea, United would be able to boast the best defensive stats in the division, and more points. As good as de Gea has been for United, a big decision will now need to be made on his future, especially with Dean Henderson waiting to return from his loan spell at Sheffield United.
Lack of Depth in Midfield and Attack
The midfield still appears to be the crux of United’s issues. This is despite the improvement upon Paul Pogba‘s return to the team and the acquisition of Fernandes mid-season. Much has been said about Fernandes’ impact, and rightly so, but United still struggle to open teams up when he is off form. Marcus Rashford, too, has struggled in recent weeks.
It is a worry for United fans that manager Solskjaer appears to have such little faith in his squad, picking more or less the same 11 players in the final games. Even in these games, the Norweigan has not been making many substitutions. Any changes he has made have come in the later periods of matches. It is true that United lack real quality in depth, especially in attacking positions. Players such as Daniel James and Andreas Pereira have struggled to prove they are top players.
Going Forward into the Champions League
Ultimately, all that matters is United did it. They met their objective of qualifying for the Champions League. Now, they can focus on winning the Europa League and continuing to build a squad capable of challenging Liverpool and Manchester City. A winger and a central midfield player is the priority. Rumours around Old Trafford suggest Jadon Sancho is the club’s top transfer target. He will be a superb buy if they can get him.
Improving Fitness Levels
In his post-match interview with Sky Sports, Solskaer talked about the tiredness in the players and their need to build fitness for next season, to become more “robust”. He has been going about his business almost low key since his appointment and deserves praise for leading the team to their second-highest league finish since the halcyon days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. But, next season the team will have to really kick on and improve on performances.
Finally for Lingard
On a final note, it would have been a wonderful moment for United fans to see Jesse Lingard get his first goal since December 2018. When in form, Lingard brings an energy and work ethic to the team that is sometimes missing without him. They need a player who presses opponents. Lingard provides this.
It was demonstrable in his late goal, chasing down Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and pouncing on his mistake. Lingard is also a big personality within the squad, popular with teammates and bringer of positive vibes. Now that the serious business of getting back into football’s elite competition is done, they can now go into next season with less pressure on their shoulders, and once again play with smiles on their faces.