Why our back five was key to third-placed finish
Ask most football fans to explain Manchester United's excellent second half to the 2019/20 season, and they'd most likely point to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, and with good reason.
But a quick glance at the final league table makes one fact startlingly clear: the Reds owe the third-place finish to our back five. The contribution of Harry Maguire, David De Gea and co has gone under the radar for the overwhelming majority of the campaign, but it's there in the final reckoning, bold as brass.
Chelsea trail Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds in fourth not by points, but by a whopping goal difference of 15. Why? Because the Blues' goals-for column is healthier than United's by three, yet they conceded 18 more. That's the difference.
And critics who malign the 20-times champions of England for being satisfied with finishing in lowly third place might also note that although United came in a huge 33 points behind Liverpool and 15 behind Manchester City, their defensive record is almost on a par with those teams. (We shipped one more goal than City, and three more than Klopp's men.)
That's vindication for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who chose to devote the majority of last summer's transfer kitty to his defence by signing Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Maguire: The future is about trophies Video
Maguire: The future is about trophies
"I joined this club to play Champions League football," explains Harry in our pitchside interview...
It implies that while there's plenty of work to do to catch the two teams above us, one part of our game is close to the required standard.
That might surprise some detractors, who have leapt on a couple of David De Gea's recent mistakes. Or others who have periodically highlighted the fee paid for Harry Maguire that made him the most expensive defender in history.
But each of the regular contributors to the back five has delivered since the turn of the year. And while their performances have by no means been flawless – as the goals conceded against Everton, against Bournemouth, make clear – they are deserving of a little bit more credit, in my opinion.
Maguire played every minute of every Premier League game – the first outfield Red to do so since Gary Pallister in 1994/95. Fans expect perfection when a well-known England international comes in for a big fee, and though Maguire has not reached that impossible target, he's assumed the captaincy with authority and been an important anchor for the side, both in and out of possession.
David De Gea has endured one of those periods which all goalkeepers suffer from occasionally, where a few errors lead some judges to make out like the world is falling in. This only seems to happen to any serious degree with goalkeepers, who are unique in that their mistakes almost always lead to a goal for the opposition.
But he's kept 10 clean sheets in the Premier League since the start of 2020. Only Ederson can boast a better record during that period. After a forgettable afternoon at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea, the Spaniard has responded well. He hasn't conceded in open play since, and was vital in the 2-0 win over Palace at Selhurst Park that preceded the cup defeat.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka made more successful tackles in the league than anyone – though Leicester's Ricardo Pereira might have surpassed him if not for a lengthy injury. But still, the Spider has put in a stout-hearted, no-nonsense debut season in M16. And when high-profile pundits decided to search for some hot takes and question his attacking prowess, he simply stepped that part of his game up too.
Luke Shaw has had arguably his best campaign yet at the club, after a long search for consistent form and fitness during his six years here. Again, he has his naysayers, and Solskjaer and co have gone on record as demanding more from the attacking part of his game. But watch back clips of the goals scored during Ole's reign as manager, and you might be surprised at just how often Luke is involved in the build-up.
Of course, only the final pass counts towards 'assists' – which makes it a pretty insubstantial metric to lose your marbles over, for my money – but Shaw is unquestionably a big and underrated part of United's attacking build-up. He's been a vital foil for Marcus Rashford, in particular, who has undoubtedly missed his overlapping runs and crisp passing since the left-back picked up an injury against Southampton.
Victor Lindelof has become an influential part of United's passing out from the back, and chose a good time to deliver arguably his best performance of the season in the 2-0 win over Leicester that sealed third. Against the violent pace and feral aggression of Golden Boot-winner Jamie Vardy, the Swede stood firm and put in some deliciously crunchy tackles. If he can show similarly aggressive, proactive performances on a week-by-week basis, he'll keep his place in the starting XI during the coming years.
Lindelof: It's time to start winning trophies Video
Lindelof: It's time to start winning trophies
"When you play for this club you should always play in the Champions League as a minimum," says Victor...
You also have to factor in that, while Ole brought in two top-class defenders last summer, he let five go during the course of 2019/20.
Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young all left and Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling were sent out on loan, while Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot, Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe made just 15 appearances between them in the league, due to injury problems. Tim Fosu-Mensah appeared only fleetingly in the final weeks.
Ultimately, Solskjaer has done it with the aforementioned back five, plus the impressive Brandon Williams, who played 17 times despite not even being part of the first-team set-up during last summer's pre-season tour.
After a difficult game against West Ham's Jarrod Bowen last week at Old Trafford, Williams came back superbly at the King Power, showing all of the grit and positivity we fans have come to know and admire.
Shaw to miss rest of the seasonArticle
Ole gave an update on Luke's ankle injury prior to our win at Leicester.
In the topsy-turvy thrum of the season, where we've oscillated from one end of the table to the other, it's easy to get carried away with how a player, or the defence/midfield/attack performed in the last game or two.
But at the end of the season, you can take in the broad span of the entire campaign and say 'that worked' or 'that didn't'.
Solskjaer's decision to sell Romelu Lukaku and give Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford centre stage has been a triumph. That move – along with the foray into the transfer market that delivered Bruno – has pumped United's attacking play full of excitement.
90 in 20: Leicester 0 United 2 Video
90 in 20: Leicester 0 United 2
Watch 20 minutes of extended highlights to relive the tension and drama of July's season-defining win at Leicester...
But, quietly, as the Norwegian's side hauled in Chelsea and Leicester during the final months, behind that freewheeling, entertaining attack, the defence were racking up the clean sheets, and digging in at places like Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park and Selhurst Park to deliver crucial points.
Solskjaer's words after the Leicester game are ringing in my ears ("Please don't praise me too much because you can become complacent") so let's not get silly – United's defence can get much better. As can the midfield and the attack. That's the next step for this team: to win a trophy and compete for the Premier League by matching the deathless winning mentality of the current Liverpool and Manchester City teams.
But the 2019/20 table and, in particular, the second half of the season, tells us loudly and clearly: United's defence is not far off the mark.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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