Once again, it’s been a turbulent season at Old Trafford. Ahead of Manchester United’s final game of 2023-24, we analyse the state of their squad heading into the summer.

Manchester United head into their final match of the 2023-24 season in danger of setting a new record low for points in a single Premier League season as they are one adrift of the 58 accumulated in 2021-22.

They also need to beat Brighton on Sunday by at least three goals to avoid finishing a top-flight campaign with negative goal difference for the first time since 1989-90 in the old Division One.

But these finer details are arguably irrelevant because United’s season is beyond saving; not even surprise FA Cup glory will make this a successful campaign in the eyes of many fans, given how disappointing they’ve been.

Erik ten Hag’s first season at the helm was largely positive, a few batterings aside. They then invested in André Onana, Rasmus Højlund and Mason Mount, all deals that appeared to address specific needs and players who looked smart fits stylistically with how United set up in 2022-23 – albeit they probably paid over the odds in each case.

None of those three have had quite the impact they’d have hoped for, and United head into the summer – the first since INEOS and Sir Jim Ratcliffe took over the sporting side of the club – seemingly at another crossroads. It’s possible Ten Hag will be replaced, and speculation suggests decision makers are willing to listen to offers for all but three players.

But this isn’t Football Manager; in reality, it’s incredibly unlikely the player turnover will be that drastic, but there’s plenty of deadwood. So, what’s the state of play through the Man Utd squad heading into a potentially busy summer?

The Defence

If there’s one department in the Man Utd squad that’s likeliest to see – and most in need of – major upheaval, it’s probably at the back. While Ten Hag’s apparent reluctance to address their gaping midfield hasn’t helped, United have been so porous defensively, with only Sheffield United (660) recording more than their 650 shots faced in the Premier League this season.

Undoubtedly injuries have wreaked havoc, forcing United to name 15 different centre-back pairings this term, two more than any other Premier League team that predominantly deploy two central defenders. But serious replenishment is needed regardless.

Raphaël Varane confirmed on Tuesday that he’s leaving at the end of his contract, which at least makes things simple in one sense for the club.

Either way, as good as he can be, the Frenchman has been unavailable far too often since joining from Real Madrid in 2021. Even if he plays the full 90 in the last game of the season, Varane will still have only featured for 50.5% of available Premier League minutes across his three campaigns. That’s obviously disappointingly low for a first-choice player.

Manchester United squad depth

Expected to follow him out the door is Jonny Evans. Initially signed on a short-term deal to play in pre-season friendlies, Evans ended up joining for the season eight years after being sold to West Brom by Louis van Gaal.

An emergency cover option, he’s ended up playing more minutes (1,552) across all competitions than Christian Eriksen (1,416), Sofyan Amrabat (1,384), Luke Shaw (1,179), Lisandro Martínez (768), Mason Mount (754), Anthony Martial (630) and Jadon Sancho (76).

And while Evans, now 36, has performed perfectly respectably mostly filling in for the injured Martínez, the signing of a 35-year-old centre-back only deemed good enough for a backup role in a relegated Leicester City side was indicative of United’s short-termism over the past decade or so.

With that in mind, a new centre-back will be required this summer, and maybe more than one. Martínez is a guaranteed starter when fit, though Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire are both unlikely to be anything more than rotation options next season – unless Gareth Southgate becomes manager and makes the latter a key man again. But as 2023-24 has shown, having plenty of options can be necessary in an injury crisis.

United will also have decisions to make in the full-back berths. Diogo Dalot has been one of their better players this season, showing signs of improvement defensively and possessing the technical ability to contribute further up as well as in midfield, but otherwise it’s not been a good campaign for the full-backs.

Tyrell Malacia hasn’t played a single minute due to injuries, Shaw has missed a huge chunk of the season with his own fitness issues, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s technical shortcomings continue to limit him. The right-back also has only a year left on his contract, meaning it’s essentially the last opportunity to recoup any of the eye-watering £50 million spent on him five years ago.

The Midfield

Here, we find the first of the three players United suits have apparently deemed ‘untransferable’; Kobbie Mainoo’s been one of the few flickers of positivity in an otherwise gloomy season for the club. A product of the academy, only three United outfielders have accumulated more minutes (2,239) in all competitions since his full debut on 26 November, a 3-0 win over Everton in which the teenager was named Player of the Match.

A phenomenally gifted talent, Mainoo potentially possesses the skillset and temperament to be the long-term successor to Michael Carrick that United have been crying out for for years; even if he ends up settling into a role slightly higher up the pitch, it would appear the club plan to construct the team around him and a few others going forward, which is quite a feat considering he only turned 19 in April.

Kobbie Mainoo heat map

Mainoo aside, however, there’s a case for offloading many of United’s midfield options.

Sofyan Amrabat’s loan spell has been underwhelming and, having started just two Premier League games in 2024, appears unlikely to have that arrangement made permanent despite showing some promising signs – albeit committing a few errors too – against Newcastle.

Similarly, Casemiro’s future would appear to lie elsewhere. It’s easy to feel sorry for him because his more recent struggles have been in the unfamiliar surroundings of centre-back, and before that Ten Hag’s tactics hadn’t helped him in a midfield that is notoriously spacious.

But he’s struggled with the pace of the game all season long and speculation around interest from Saudi Arabia won’t go away. If he does stay, United can’t expect him to thrive again if they insist on such an open setup.

He and Eriksen are United’s oldest midfielders at 32 and it’s also difficult to see much of a future at Old Trafford for the Dane; while still clearly an able technician and passer, he’s not able to influence a game like Bruno Fernandes, for example, and physically he doesn’t convince when played in a deeper role – the club are said to have made him available for transfer and it’d be very surprising to see him in the Man Utd squad come the start of 2024-25.

Manchester United squad age profile
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Scott McTominay and Mount look safe from the cut, though for rather different reasons. The Scotland international resisted offers of a move last summer and will probably come out of this season with credit. While he’ll never be a regular starter, he’s homegrown, reasonably handy as a rotation option – providing he’s not asked to play as the deepest midfielder – and pops up with a few goals. In fact, this season, his seven league goals have been worth 12 points, with only four players in the whole division bettering that points return.

As for Mount, a poor first campaign has in fairness been interrupted by injuries, meaning his value’s come down significantly in the past 12 months – he’ll surely be given at least another season to get back to his best.

But that’ll almost certainly require him to continue in a deeper position as it’s difficult to see Fernandes leaving and vacating the No. 10 role. Recent media rumours claimed the Portugal midfielder was contemplating his future at the club, though he seemed to suggest staying was his priority when speaking to Sky Sports after his Player of the Match display against Newcastle on Wednesday:

“The club needs to want me. I feel the club wants me to be a part of the future. As I said always, I don’t want to be a player that the club doesn’t want to have. If for some reason they don’t want to have me, I will go. But if they want me, I will stay.‌”

Of course, Fernandes’ value both in terms of transfer fee and wages would be huge, and therefore provide United with much greater room for manoeuvre in the transfer window when trying to adhere to spending rules were he to leave.

But they are so reliant on his creativity. In November, we highlighted how he’s the most relied-upon creator in the Premier League, and he can comfortably still claim that. Fernandes’ 11.6 expected goals (xG) assisted accounts for a league-high 23.2% of his team’s non-penalty xG, with no other United player recording a share of over 10%, and it was a similar story in 2022-23.

So, while some might feel getting rid of Fernandes could make them less one dimensional, there’s every chance they’d be even worse off without him, as the recent hammering by Crystal Palace highlighted.

Perhaps what United really need is other players to ease the creative burden on him.

The Forwards

Marcus Rashford is in a comparable situation to Fernandes, in that United could command a sizeable fee and a sale would provide the club with much greater leg room in the market.

Where they differ is that Fernandes has been consistently effective ever since joining the club, while Rashford is erratic and coming to the end of a thoroughly unimpressive season that’s yielded just five non-penalty goals in the league; only in 2021-22 has he managed fewer (four).

Every few months or so, there are mutterings in the media about Rashford’s future potentially being cloudy. Considering his relationship with the fans is a little rocky and that apparent admirers Paris Saint-Germain are looking to replace Kylian Mbappé this summer, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he seeks a new challenge. In Alejandro Garnacho, United have a ready-made replacement for the left flank as well.

Garnacho may still be fairly raw but he’s already made significant strides, with only Dalot (34) and Fernandes (35) making more than his 29 league starts this term among outfielders at United.

Furthermore, in April he became the second-youngest Man Utd player to reach 50 Premier League appearances for the club (19 years, 281 days). This does also play into the idea he’s being used too much for his age, but if he’s managed correctly, Garnacho could lock down that role for the next decade or more and develop into a superstar.

The same could be said of Højlund as the central striker, with he, Garnacho and Mainoo seen as key to a new era. His 16 goals in all competitions (so far) this season is a respectable return for a 21-year-old in a team that’s struggled for much of the campaign.

It’s also worth noting how United have been criticised for much of 2023-24 for providing the Dane with poor service, with 25 strikers receiving more passes in the penalty area on a per-90-minute basis in the Premier League this term than Højlund (2.06). And yet, he’s acquitted himself well after a difficult start, showing he possesses a wide skillset that should give him the platform to be a success in England.

Man Utd summer cull

The same cannot be said of Antony. An £85m signing less than two years ago, the Brazilian’s been an abject disappointment, especially this season; he heads into the final game of the campaign having recorded just two goal involvements in the Premier League (1 goal, 1 assist) in 2023-24, two fewer than even Maguire. Rumours in the past week hinted at United putting him up for sale, and honestly, who could blame them?

If he does leave, he’ll follow Anthony Martial out of the door. The Frenchman’s contract expires this summer and he waved farewell to fans at Old Trafford on Wednesday, with his nine-year United spell hampered significantly by injuries.

Clearly, then, reinforcements will be required in attack, regardless of whether Rashford departs. While Amad Diallo’s emergence as a credible option in recent weeks is a welcome boost, particularly in light of Antony’s woeful form, United still feel a little short of numbers in the forward positions, especially given Højlund’s been the only recognised central striker available for the majority of the campaign.

Either way, it should be a busy few months at Old Trafford, and that’s without even considering the likelihood of Ten Hag staying or leaving. The 11-year, post-Sir Alex Ferguson transition enters yet another summer, but with the hierarchial changes implemented already by INEOS and Ratcliffe, perhaps there’s finally a sustained cause for optimism.

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