It is only eight years since Manchester United last won the league title but in some ways, it feels like a lifetime. United have crammed enough incompetence, upheaval, greed and self-loathing into those eight years to last a couple of decades but now it is finally beginning to feel as if the club’s cycle of despair may soon be coming to an end.
The signing of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund is not a panacea. It will not change everything by itself. But it was significant because it was another sign that United are moving in the right direction.
Slow and steady wins the race, they say, and the England winger’s arrival has heightened the sense that the club are moving inexorably closer to regaining what they lost.
Jadon Sancho’s signing was another sign that Man United are moving in the right direction
It fits with the policy they adopted after the reign of Jose Mourinho ended, predictably, in tears. It was time to stop thrashing around, bouncing from one giant ego to another and to accept that to restore United to former glories was going to take time. Most of all, it was going to take patience and perseverance in the face of supporter disillusion.
United have not won anything yet. Even if they capture a couple more of the players they have been linked with this summer, even if they have a dream transfer window and add Raphael Varane and Declan Rice to the purchase of Sancho, they will still not have a squad to match the depth or the quality of Manchester City.
City will be favourites to retain their title and Liverpool, with Virgil van Dijk restored to their ranks, will be stronger than last season. Chelsea, armed with the affirmation that comes with being Champions League winners and thriving under Thomas Tuchel, will be stronger, too. United and their players know all that: no one said getting back to the top would be easy.
But for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left, United start next season as genuine contenders for the title. They have threatened briefly before, certainly, but either because of their own shortcomings or because of the obvious superiority of others, it has always been clear that they would struggle to stay the course.
Even if United got Declan Rice (L) and Raphael Varane (R), City would still be stronger
This time feels different, as if United are preparing for a big push. They have most of the pieces in place, their squad is getting stronger and the age profile of their team is such that it suggests this might be a group of players who can go on to achieve sustained success, not just win it once and fade back into the shadows.
This is a big season for United. It is make or break for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for a start. If he does not win trophies this season, he will be out of a job whether United are committed to building patiently or not. There comes a time when patience has to be rewarded with results and this is the season Solskjaer must deliver.
There are parallels between the way the manager is viewed and some of the criticism that has been aimed at England boss Gareth Southgate in the past: ‘Too nice’, ‘not astute enough’, ‘tactically naïve’, ‘not decisive enough’, ‘what’s he ever won?’
Southgate has faced that criticism down and led England to a World Cup semi-final and a momentous victory over Germany in these Euros. Maybe this is the year of the quiet man.
Pressure is on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to win something after another near-miss last season
Sure, Solskjaer is not Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. Those two are clear of the field as the best managers in the world. But that should not negate the progress Solskjaer has made at Old Trafford, nor should it obscure the fact that United have attained a far healthier position under him than they ever did under the leadership of more celebrated managers like Louis van Gaal and Mourinho.
There are causes for optimism all over the field now. Look at the evidence that has already emerged from the European Championship.
Coming back from injury, United skipper Harry Maguire reminded everyone with his commanding performance against Germany what an effective, inspirational defender he can be. He played like a real leader in that game.
And then there is Luke Shaw, who has sometimes been regarded by the denizens of Old Trafford as part of United’s problem, not the solution. Scorned and humiliated by Mourinho, Shaw’s performances in the Euros, particularly against Germany, have reminded English football quite what an asset he can be to a defence and a team.
United desperately need to strengthen the centre of defence before the season starts and find a better partner for Maguire than Victor Lindelof, who was a weak link too many times last season.
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw’s performances at Euro 2020 gives United cause for optimsim
They must also try to upgrade their central midfield, which is why Rice would be such an attractive option. If they neglect those positions, they won’t win the title. But if they address them, they have the basis of a team that can go head to head with City, Liverpool and Chelsea and sustain a challenge deeper into the season.
That assumes that they do not just strengthen the squad but hold on to the players they already have. That, of course, means Paul Pogba in particular.
Pogba is another player who has sometimes divided the United fan base as well as Premier League watchers but before France’s premature exit from the Euros, he also provided reminders of his class, especially with his superb performance and goal against Switzerland.
Imagine a midfield with Rice, say, as its anchor and Pogba and Bruno Fernandes operating in front of him. The attacking options are complete now that Sancho is there to join Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani and Dan James. It is a high-quality roster of forwards, whether Anthony Martial remains at the club or not.
If United build on the signing of Sancho with one or two more quality acquisitions this summer, it might be enough to win them the League. It will certainly be enough to earn them an equal place in the conversation. And that hasn’t happened for eight years.
Another fake gold era
I was in Rome on Friday night, quarantining at a hotel far enough away from the centre of the city not to be able to hear the celebrations that followed Italy’s quarter-final victory over Belgium in Munich.
The only football fans I saw were knots of melancholy Belgium supporters, wandering away from the hotel patio where a giant television had been showing the match. Belgium have such a wonderfully talented group of players, including Kevin De Bruyne, but this was probably their last shot at success in a major tournament.
It is a bitter pill to swallow but their golden generation ended up winning precisely the same amount of trophies as ours.
Belgium’s golden generation have missed their chance to win a tournament after Euros exit
Murray’s show of courage
There is a risk of patronising Andy Murray by praising him for what he achieved at Wimbledon last week. A straight-sets exit in the third round is not something we would have been celebrating for him a few years ago.
But sometimes, there are things in sport that matter more than who wins. One of the most moving things I have ever seen in sport is the footage of the final yards of the 1997 Ironman World Championships when Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham competed in a desperate battle for fourth place.
Murray’s first-round victory over 24th seed Nikoloz Basilashvili in his first match at Wimbledon for four years did not win him another Grand Slam or another Olympic gold.
But after everything he has been through, the injuries he has overcome, the dedication he has shown just to get back to this point, that win over Basilashvili was the most inspirational piece of sport I’ve seen for a while.
Andy Murray showed immense heart to battle his way into the third round at Wimbledon