At the time the Premier League released its fixture for the season, not many thought this would be much of a contest.
After an extremely troubling start to the season, Manchester United have turned it around.
Just under halfway through the season the Red Devils currently sit second on the Premier League table with a game in hand on leaders Liverpool.
But even though their form at the moment is brilliant, there are still a handful of issues United have to address to return to their place as one of the best clubs in the world. Specifically there are two positional needs they must act upon in the transfer market.
These are the two main positions where they need an upgrade, and some potential targets for them to track.
Manchester United need to make many moves at the centre back position. Their first priority must be getting rid of Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo, neither of whom have featured this season. Getting rid of deadwood like this brings relief to their massive wages bill, which will help them fund future transfers.
Eric Baily has been great for United in the past few weeks but might be the most injury-prone player in the Premier League. Harry Maguire seems to make a mistake every couple of weeks, Victor Lindelof is dreadful in the air and Axel Tuanzebe hasn’t reached his peak yet.
A quality centre back is needed to anchor this United defence, and they are in desperate need of one if they want to challenge for trophies.
The club’s No. 1 target at the moment has to be David Alaba. With almost every top club in Europe interested in the Austrian due to his contract expiring in June, it will be extremely difficult to sign him. However, if they are to get him, he would be the perfect signing. Alaba has been converted to a centreback under Bayern manager Hans-Dieter Flick, with whom he excelled in the side’s treble-winning campaign.
Milan Skriniar from Inter Milan is also possible as he remains frustrated being played out of position under Antonio Conte. United play a standard four at the back, and Skriniar would fit in perfectly.
A more realistic target may be Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig. The Frenchman is still just 22 but is already one of the best centre backs in the Bundesliga. His fellow countryman and teammate Ibrahima Konate wouldn’t be a bad shout either, although he lacks experience.
Jules Kounde is another impressive young Frenchman who has also been heavily linked with Man City. United are already aware of how good he is, having been defeated by his Sevilla side in the Europa League semi-final. Kounde, like Upamecano and Konate, is extremely quick for a centre back. With cross-town rivals Manchester City also interested, United may have to dig out big money for him.
Finally, Pau Torres and Edmond Tapsoba have been exceptional for Villareal and Bayer Leverkusen respectively and would be available at a much cheaper price than the aforementioned defenders.
While United have plenty of central midfielders at their disposal, they still lack a true defensive midfielder. Nemanja Matic isn’t getting any younger, and with age he is becoming extremely slow and immobile.
Fred has spent a lot of time there this season but is more of a playmaker and passer of the ball rather than a pure holding player. With the goals he has scored recently, it is clear that Scott McTominay is by no means a sitting player and is more of a box-to-box midfielder.
Signing a proper defensive midfielder would allow United to play two more offensive players in the midfield. This is similar to the way Manchester City have lined up for years, placing Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva ahead of sitter Fernandinho or Rodri. This at the moment would be Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, but Donny Van De Beek, McTominay and Fred are also all options here.
There are generally two types of defensive midfielders. Some have intense work rates and cover an incredible amount of ground, like N’Golo Kante at Chelsea. Others take more of a stagnant approach, breaking up play and dropping between the centre backs. This is what Matic is like at United.
The club needs a player who can do both of these things at a high level, and therefore their No. 1 target must be Denis Zakaria from Borussia Monchengladbach. The Swiss International is nearly 1.9 metres tall and has all the attributes of a more sitting midfielder. However, he is also extremely agile and has great stamina, meaning he can also be an energetic ball-winning midfielder.
Having a player of this ability would mean that Pogba, should he remain in Manchester, would be able to play in his preferred role as an advanced No. 8. Zakaria can also cover well at Centre back, which adds to United’s squad depth.
Another outstanding option would be Wilfred Ndidi. The Nigerian midfielder has impressed for Leicester City and is still just 24 years old. However, given how well the Foxes are doing at the moment, a move is unlikely. The same goes for Saul Niguez, with Atletico Madrid sitting comfortably atop of La Liga.
Declan Rice would also be an outstanding signing given his quality at such a young age, but he seems set to move to Chelsea in the near future.
If they are not able to get a player of this level, they should focus on an extremely promising youngster like Ryan Gravenberch from Ajax. Despite being just 18 years old, the Dutchman is already one of the best players in the Eredivisie and is one of the best prospects in world football.
If United can lure him away from Ajax under the noses of every major club in world football, they can develop him into one of the best midfielders in the world.