With the 2021-22 Premier League season kicking off in two weeks, more and more pundits have placed their bets on the top four and there seems to be a familiar pattern.
If you asked Manchester United fans what they would have hoped for into the 2019-20 season, you’d likely get some mixed responses.
There would be some that would have wanted the Europa League title, there would be some that wanted top four, and there would be many that would have not cared so long as Liverpool weren’t crowned Premier League champions.
But as most fans know, very rarely do teams give the fans what they hope for. So how do we determine success? Let’s look at the facts.
The 2019-20 season saw United record their highest Premier League finish since José Mourinho’s second season in charge of the club. Since finishing runner-up behind crosstown rivals Manchester City in 2017-18, they fell to sixth position the following season, which saw Ole Gunnar Solskjær take the reins for the second half of the season.
After being no higher than fifth place in the Premier League since match day six in September 2019, United went on a 14-game unbeaten streak to end the season in third position. In the process they beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester, who were all bidding for top-four positions.
They secured a Premier League record, being the first team in the Premier League to win four consecutive games by three or more goals. On this run United still struggled at times, only managing to secure draws against the likes of Everton, Southampton and West Ham.
However despite seeing significant success in the Premier League, securing Champions League football for the following season, there is an overarching blight on the season and that is the fact that the club remained trophyless.
For the third straight season Manchester United failed to secure any silverware and for the second straight season failed to reach a single final. Despite making it to the semi-finals in all cup competitions they were involved in, United were knocked out by Manchester City on aggregate in the EFL Cup and Chelsea in the FA Cup, a team they had defeated twice in the Premier League.
This being said, United’s cup campaigns improved on last season when they only managed quarter-final finishes in the Champions League, FA Cup and a third-round defeat to Derby County in the EFL Cup.
However despite this marginal improvement, the underlying fact remains for the second straight year United are without silverware and after seeing bitter rivals Liverpool claim both a Champions League title and breaking a 30-year title drought, this is something United cannot afford to continue.
Looking more closely at the team, there are definitely standouts who stamped their impact on the season. With the departure of Romelu Lukaku over the summer, much focus was put toward who would fill the vacant number nine shirt, a responsibility that fell on the shoulders of a then 23-year-old Anthony Martial playing in his fifth season at the club.
Martial started the 2019-20 season relatively strongly, with four goals and three assists in his first ten games. From there Martial continued to show signs of the striker United hoped the Frenchman would become when they signed him in 2015.
Martial played a significant role in United’s unbeaten run, most notably in the 3-0 home win against Sheffield United where Martial scored his first senior hat trick. But more importantly it was United’s first league hat trick since Robin van Persie in April 2013.
Martial finished alongside Marcus Rashford on 17 Premier League goals, putting them both six behind the golden boot winner Jamie Vardy on 23.
The impact can be seen more closely on the table with United’s 12 draws in comparison to second-place Manchester City’s three. This meant at the end of the season, United finished on the same amount of points as they did the previous season, only with fewer wins and more draws.
The only thing separating United’s season from the previous one was stronger defence. It is important to raise the role of the summer signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Despite being criticised by Solskjaer for not going forward enough, Wan-Bissaka was by far the biggest defensive influence, finishing the season equal with Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi for most tackles made in the Premier League.
Despite this impact, most of the attention falls upon the influence of January signing Bruno Fernandes – and looking at his performances, it is easy to see why.
Since joining the club, his eight goals and seven assists were highest of any January signing in Premier League history. His direct involvement in 13 goals in the Premier League is the highest of any Premier League player in their first ten games.
This immediate impact meant United picked up more Premier League points (32) than any other team since his debut on February 1.
So can United’s 2019-20 season be called a success? The answer ultimately lies in what measures success. If it is silverware, then United’s failure to reach a cup final in the past two seasons suggests the season is anything but.
However if success is built upon certain statistics then the evidence may suggest the success is moderate. What can be seen for certain is this season showed what is working and what isn’t. The season has shown United are improving defensively but continue to lag behind in front of goal, which is something that needs improvement should United wish to lift the league title any time soon.
United’s efforts in the transfer market also raise suggestions of success due to several strong performances. The real test will be whether these performances can continue. Though improvements can be seen in the particular impact of individual players, the success of big teams like Manchester United ultimately lies in the trophy cabinet.
And without silverware, the debate surrounding the success of a season will continue.