Why competition for Player of the Year is a good sign
I can’t be the only Manchester United supporter carefully mulling over my choice for the 2019/20 Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award.
In years gone by, the winner of our fans’ vote has often been a foregone conclusion, with one outstanding candidate clear at the front of the field.
Two seasons ago, David De Gea was the obvious choice for a fourth prize in five years after a stellar campaign in which he seemed to save us singlehandedly every week, winning the Premier League’s Golden Glove as United finished second – a position that might not have been so rosy had it not been for the Spaniard’s heroics.
In 2013, Robin van Persie was always going to emerge victorious having propelled the club to a 20th title in his first season, while going further back, Cristiano Ronaldo (2007 and 2008), Ruud van Nistelrooy (2002 and 2003) and Eric Cantona (1996) were all pretty obvious winners.
But this year, as we look back at a positive campaign that was strange for so many reasons – usually we’d be weeks into a new season at this late stage of August, rather than deciding individual awards – there’s plenty of competition for this year’s accolade, with half-a-dozen or more of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in with a real shout.
I’m not sure if the bookmakers are offering a market on this particular vote, but if they were, you’d have to say Bruno Fernandes would probably be favourite.
It’s hard to remember a January signing taking to the challenge of playing for United so easily – no bedding-in period, no ‘getting up to the speed of English football’, just pure, unadulterated productivity: 12 goals, eight assists and a position as keystone in the Reds’ late, successful charge for Champions League football.
Although he’s won four out of five Player-of-the-Month gongs since signing, some would point to the fact that Bruno’s only been here half the season. Can he really claim Player of the Year? It would be a first in this award’s 32-year history.
Let’s take a look at top goalscorer Anthony Martial, then.
The Frenchman came into the campaign having netted just once in his last 11 appearances for United, with injury limiting his appearances during Solskjaer’s opening few months at the club.
He left it after plundering 23 in 48 – equalling his previous two seasons’ tallies combined – linking up with Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood to great effect and also deservedly winning back his place in the France national set-up.
Rashford himself was talismanic for the first half of 2019/20.
Our no.10 put Tottenham and Manchester City to the sword in the space of three days, belted a free-kick Roberto Carlos would be proud of past Chelsea and generally led the line brilliantly as the Reds battled injury and inconsistency early on.
The 22-year-old’s output may have slowed after lockdown as he recovered from January’s serious back injury, but he was still a key part in one of United’s best unbeaten runs for years – and, if you’re the type who takes into consideration what goes on off the pitch, who can forget his deeds in June, forcing the UK government into a U-turn on free school meals for underprivileged children?
We need to talk about Mason Greenwood too. No one has won this award at the age of 18 – all-time greats Ronaldo and Rooney were 19 and 20 at the time of their first wins – but this precocious talent is in with a real chance, you’d have to say.
Mason played 49 games in all competitions, the second-highest tally in the squad, and became more and more important as the campaign wore on.
He graduated from 15-minute impactful cameos from the bench to moulding the shape of games from the off, battering goals past all-comers during a regal July that made him impossible for England manager Gareth Southgate to overlook when choosing his latest squad.
Another hugely encouraging note to take from 2019/20 is the manner in which Solskjaer’s summer signings adjusted to life at Old Trafford.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, for example, looks to have the right-back position locked down for the next decade.
We know how good the former Crystal Palace man is at the defensive side of the game and, as the term went on, he became more of a potent attacking outlet, contributing four assists from Christmas onwards.
The biggest signing of 2019, Harry Maguire, looks like he’s been a United player for years.
He’s already captain, didn’t miss a single Premier League game and was a major factor in the significant improvement of the defence – from 54 conceded in ‘18/19 to just 36 this time around.
Finally, it’s important to remember the contributions of midfield trio Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.
Perhaps hindered by the fact they play in a less glamorous position than some of our other candidates, all three enjoyed prolonged spells in the starting XI and contributed to some massive wins – not least the Manchester derby victory in March 2020, the last game in front of a full Old Trafford for some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we look back on 2019/20 in years to come, we will, of course, remember the virus and how it changed the sporting landscape. But, in football terms, hopefully we’ll also recall it as the year in which Ole’s young side started to bloom and show signs of what’s to come.
The genuine competition for the fans’ Player of the Year vote this year is testament to just how many game-changing and inspirational talents there are in this squad and, whoever wins this particular individual prize, there can be no denying that this team has all the makings of being both the most enjoyable to watch and the most successful since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
The views represented in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Manchester United Football Club.