Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has apologised to the club's supporters after their humiliating 5-0 defeat to rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Mohamed Salah plundered a hat-trick after Naby Keita and Diogo Jota had put Liverpool into a 2-0 lead inside 15 minutes, while substitute Paul Pogba was dismissed on a dark day for United.

The result was United's heaviest ever defeat at home to Liverpool, and it is the first time they have lost to-nil by five or more goals at home since February 1955 (5-0 v Man City).

The defeat follows last weekend's 4-2 loss at Leicester City and leaves Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side eight points adrift of Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Maguire, who was at the heart of a slapstick performance by United's defence, admitted the display was well short of the standards the club should be setting.

"We apologise to the fans, it was nowhere near good enough for this club," he told Sky Sports. "They stuck with us right to the end and we appreciate that but as a club we have to do better.

"I am so disappointed; we gave them so many chances. They were so clinical, we had a lot of chances ourselves but I am a defender and to concede four in the first half, especially at Old Trafford, is nowhere near good enough.

"As a player I know myself. I’ll be looking at myself and my individual performance.

"We have to stick together, there is no point blaming each other but look at ourselves. Look in the mirror when we go home tonight and think where we can do better.

"To lose to Liverpool in any game of football hurts. The rivals, the way we lost the game, to be 4-0 down at half time in front of our fans, like I say it is not good enough."

Asked if it was too strong to say the result was embarrassing, Maguire responded: "Not really. The term I'd use is not good enough. I look at those lads each day in training and we are working hard as we can but at the moment it is not good enough.

"I apologise to the fans, we have to look at ourselves as individuals but also stick together."

Harry Maguire expressed his disappointment at Manchester United's defensive work while hailing Cristiano Ronaldo after the Red Devils overturned a two-goal deficit to defeat Atalanta 3-2.

Gian Piero Gasperini's side raced into a two-goal lead inside 29 minutes at Old Trafford – the earliest United have found themselves two goals down at home in the Champions League since October 2012.

It was also the 12th consecutive home game across all competitions the hosts had conceded in – their longest such run since February 1964 (13).

However, Marcus Rashford netted the 300th goal of Solskjaer's tenure to give the Red Devils hope before Harry Maguire levelled things with his first goal in the Champions League.

Ronaldo then scored in his third consecutive game in Europe for United – last doing so in 2007-08 en route to winning the trophy with Alex Ferguson's side – to cap yet another memorable turnaround.

Despite the comeback, Maguire admitted his frustrations at the manner in which his side fell behind as he implored for improvements at the back.

"We definitely do like doing it the hard way in the Champions League," Maguire told BT Sport post-match.

"In the first half, we conceded two bad goals - the quick free-kick for the first and the set play we shouldn’t be conceding from.

"The last few games we've conceded a lot from set-plays, I think that's four in the last four games so we need to sharpen up on that.

"That [conceding from set-pieces] is not good enough for this club. We're working on the formula to be a lot more solid but it's about winning football matches.

"We've shown great togetherness, in the dressing room at half-time after the fans cheered and clapped us off, we gave them the result and the energy that they deserved."

Ronaldo, who also proved the late hero last time out in Europe against Villarreal, delivered once more and Maguire was quick to praise the competition's all-time leading scorer after yet another vital performance.

"I had eyes on it all the way," the centre-back said of Ronaldo's winner.

"I was right behind him. His leap, his timing, it was perfect right in the corner.

"We see it day in, day out in training and in the goals he has scored throughout his career. He has come up with a massive goal for us again in the Champions League."

United face Liverpool and Tottenham in the Premier League before travelling to Atalanta on November 2 with a two-point lead at the top of Group F.

Leicester City came from behind to beat Manchester United 4-2 in a thriller on Saturday and end the Red Devils' long unbeaten away run in the Premier League.

It looked as though United's English league record of 29 games without defeat on the road would continue when Mason Greenwood opened the scoring with a stunning strike.

However, Leicester levelled through Youri Tielemans following an error from the returning Harry Maguire, and Caglar Soyuncu prodded home to put the hosts ahead with 12 minutes to go.

In a frantic finale, Marcus Rashford marked his first appearance of the season with an equaliser before Leicester restored their lead from kick-off, Jamie Vardy blasting home from Ayoze Perez's cut-back.

Patson Daka added a fourth in injury time as United lost for the fourth time in seven matches.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer defended his decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo before the international break, adamant he is trying to learn from his own mistake of overexerting his players.

Ronaldo was surprisingly named among the substitutes as United could only draw 1-1 with Everton in their most recent Premier League match.

United produced a disappointing performance as they were left with just two wins from their past seven home games in the league.

Ronaldo came on in the second half to make his 200th top-flight appearance for United, becoming only the fifth player since 2003 to reach that milestone in two of Europe's big five leagues.

The Portugal star looked furious as he walked down the tunnel after that match and a video posted by Mixed Martial Arts star Khabib Nurmagomedov – who was a guest of the club – showed Alex Ferguson questioning Solskjaer's decision to rest Ronaldo in a conversation with him.

But while Solskjaer says he would like to play Ronaldo – who scored four goals in two games for Portugal over the past couple of weeks – as much as possible, he insists he is looking out for United's collective conditioning in the long term.

"He's an exceptional player, finisher, goalscorer and professional," Solskjaer told reporters ahead of Saturday's clash with Leicester City.

"It's hard to leave him out and everyone would love to play six games [in a row] and play the same XI, it's great, but it's rotation [they need].

"We need to get to May with everyone firing. We got to May and the final stretch last season and we were a little tired.

"I'm the manager, I manage for the club, but of course it's nice to have him on the pitch because he'll always come up with the goods, and the more we have him on the pitch, the better."

While many will expect Ronaldo to start at the King Power Stadium, he could potentially be joined in attack by Marcus Rashford for the first time.

England international Rashford has not played since Euro 2020 after undergoing surgery on a persistent shoulder injury in August.

Solskjaer confirmed the forward will be in the squad on Saturday and did not rule out him starting, though the game will come slightly too soon for captain Harry Maguire.

"[Rashford] is in the squad, yes. If he's starting or not, I can't tell you because it wouldn't be right, but he's been really bright this week.

"He had a 60-minute involvement in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, so he's fit and raring to go.

"Harry's just joined us on the grass this morning, so that was the first time he's been on the grass."

Fellow England international Jesse Lingard has been the subject of significant speculation in recent months after a blistering loan spell with West Ham last season.

His contract expires at the end of the season and he has been linked with numerous clubs, including Barcelona, though Solskjaer was unequivocal in his desire to keep Lingard at Old Trafford.

"Jesse's had a good start to the season, come on and scored a few goals," Solskjaer said. "He's been important for us.

"We want to prolong his contract; we see him as an important player. It's up to him to get more playing time, and maybe it's up to me giving him more playing time because he deserves to [play], but I always have to leave players out.

"Hopefully we can get a deal sorted for Jesse, because we really rate him and value him around the club. He's a top player and a top person."

Erling Haaland has his pick of Europe's elite.

The Borussia Dortmund and Norway star is wanted by the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid.

But Premier League champions City are one particular club looking to prise Haaland from Germany if the rumours are to be believed.

 

TOP STORY – CITY HOPING TO CAPITALISE ON PUMA PARTNERSHIP

Manchester City are hoping their Puma sponsorship and a looming boot deal can help land Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, according to the Daily Star.

City's kits are manufactured by Puma, while Haaland is reportedly poised to sign a boot deal with the German giants.

Haaland has been linked with City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, Barcelona and Juventus.

 

ROUND-UP

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Juve are planning an approach to bring United midfielder Paul Pogba back to Turin. Pogba is out of contract at the end of the season and while United are keen for a renewal, the Frenchman has been linked with Madrid and PSG also.

- United captain and England defender Harry Maguire is poised for a new bumper contract at Old Trafford, reports the Mirror.

Liverpool are considering a move for Barca's Ousmane Dembele with Juve unwilling to part with Federico Chiesa, says Team Talk.

- According to Football Insider, Newcastle United have made star Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly a priority signing in January. It comes after Newcastle's blockbuster takeover.

PSG are targeting Napoli's soon-to-be free agent Lorenzo Insigne, per Le10 Sport. Insigne has also been linked with Inter and Milan.

- Manchester United outcast Donny van de Beek is wanted by Serie A powerhouse Juve, claims Corriere dello Sport. Van de Beek was in talks over an Everton switch during the previous window.

- Milan star Franck Kessie is among Barca's midfielder targets for the January window, says Diario Sport. Van de Beek, Tottenham's Tanguy Ndombele and Marcelo Brozovic of Inter are also options.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has been ruled out for Wednesday's Champions League match against Villarreal and could miss "a few weeks" of action with a calf injury.

Maguire and fellow defender Luke Shaw both suffered injuries in the disappointing 1-0 Premier League defeat to Aston Villa last time out.

And manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revealed the centre-back is set for a spell on the sidelines.

But he had more positive news on Shaw, who is in contention to face the Spanish side and does not look poised for a long spell out regardless of whether he is able to start the match at Old Trafford.

"Luke has been in on Tuesday, so I will give him a chance to be involved," Solskjaer said at his pre-match news conference.

"He did not train with the team [but] hopefully Luke can be involved.

"Harry is more or less definitely out, it doesn't look good. It is his calf, that might take a few weeks.

"Let's see how quickly he recovers. He wanted to play against Villarreal, he missed the last game [against them in the Europa League final]." 

With Aaron Wan-Bissaka already suspended after a red card in the opening Group F defeat against Young Boys, United could be forced to change three members of their regular back four alongside Raphael Varane.

Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles are among the candidates to come into the starting XI.

Solskjaer added: "We will have to make a few changes. You always look at the opposition and sometimes you need to make adjustments.

"But we look at ourselves mostly. The more injuries you get, you might need to do tactical changes. I have got Eric, Rapha, Victor. Alex and Diogo 100 per cent fit." 

The last five meetings in European competition between United and Villarreal have all ended in draws.

Four of those encounters were goalless, the exception being the 2021 Europa League final, which Villarreal won 11-10 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

"You expect what you have learned in the last few seasons," added Solskjaer. "We have played each other five times, every time has been a draw. 

"They are very well organised, technically very good. They can play from the back. It is hard to press against them, which I thought we did well in the final.

"Difficult to create chances against and we have to be better to create chances. It was an even final."

United go into the key game looking to end an unwelcome trend.

They are winless in their last seven matches against Spanish teams in the Champions League (D3 L4), with their last such victory coming against Real Sociedad back in October 2013 (1-0).

Bruno Fernandes' stoppage-time penalty miss capped an awful day for Manchester United as they deservedly lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.

A point would have taken United top of the Premier League, with Chelsea losing to Manchester City on Saturday, but they could have no complaints about the outcome at Old Trafford despite a dramatic finish.

Kortney Hause looked to have gone from hero to zero when he followed a headed goal at one end with a handball at the other.

But Fernandes, taking the spot-kick ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, blazed over the crossbar to condemn United – who lost Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to injury – to a first league defeat of the campaign.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire was substituted with an apparent ankle injury in the second half of Saturday's game against Aston Villa.

Maguire was replaced by Victor Lindelof 23 minutes from time at Old Trafford, having attempted to play on.

He had early received treatment after taking a kick from Danny Ings in a tangle in the United area. Villa appealed for a penalty, but Ollie Watkins was flagged for offside earlier in the move.

Maguire's defensive colleague Luke Shaw was substituted in the first half after pulling up.

The two injuries could represent major blows to United ahead of a big week in which they will aim to get their Champions League campaign back on track at home to Villarreal.

Cristiano Ronaldo bemoaned Manchester United's late collapse at Young Boys in the Champions League but the superstar is eyeing a quick response from the Red Devils.

Ronaldo made it three goals in two games since returning to United, however, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 10 men still suffered a 2-1 loss after Jordan Siebatcheu pounced on Jesse Lingard's misjudged backpass in the 95th minute.

Having equalled former Real Madrid team-mate Iker Casillas' record with his 177th Champions League appearance on Tuesday, Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 13th minute in the Group F opener.

The goal made Young Boys the 36th different side Ronaldo has scored against in the Champions League, a record he now shares with Lionel Messi.

But United paid the price after full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off 10 minutes before half-time – Nicolas Moumi Ngamaleu's 66th-minute strike restoring parity for Young Boys, who went on to stun the visitors with the last kick of the game.

Ronaldo, whose United travel to West Ham on Sunday as they aim to maintain their unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign, wrote via social media: "Wasn't the result we wanted, but now it's time to recover well and focus on the next game!"

The 36-year-old's strike for United came 12 years and 132 days since his previous Champions League goal for the Premier League club, breaking the record for the gap between goals for the same team in the competition previously held by Javier Zanetti for Inter (11y 315d, 1998-2010).

It was a difficult night for United, who managed just two shots against Young Boys – the fewest Opta have on record in any of their 138 Champions League matches since 2003-04. Their second and final shot of the match came in the 25th minute via Ronaldo.

United lost their first match in a Champions League campaign for only the second time, also doing so in 2015-16 under Louis van Gaal, a 2-1 defeat to PSV.

"It was a tough game, a tough surface. Away from home, we found ourselves going down to 10 men, [but] we looked comfortable in the game," United captain Harry Maguire told MUTV, with the club also due to meet Villarreal and Atalanta in the group.

"We conceded a scruffy goal which was really unlucky. Although we weren't playing our greatest football and we weren't the biggest threat at the other end of the pitch, we looked really solid, didn't concede many chances and then, obviously, they go away with the victory. 

"It's the first game in the group, we've got many games to bounce back, so we must do."

England captain Harry Kane is hopeful UEFA will take stern action against Hungary should allegations of racist behaviour from some of their supporters be proven.

The Three Lions shrugged off any hangover from the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy with an emphatic 4-0 win in Budapest on Thursday.

Kane, Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire and Declan Rice got on the scoresheet as Gareth Southgate's side kept themselves on track to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

However, in a hostile atmosphere at the Puskas Arena, the win could have been marred by reported racist chants that were said to have been directed at some England players. The visiting team were booed when they took the knee prior to kick-off.

Asked by ITV if he had heard any chants, Kane said: "I didn't hear that. Obviously that's something I'll talk to the boys [about] and see if any of them heard any of it.

"We'll have to report it to UEFA as the rules permit and if it is the case hopefully UEFA can come down strong."

Maguire too claimed he had not heard any chants first hand.

"It was disappointing to hear the boos but it has happened in previous games, we knew what to expect but I am happy all the boys stood by it," the centre-back told BBC Radio 5Live.

"I have spoken to a couple of lads, I did not hear them myself and if it did happen then I am disappointed.

"Three, four of us did not hear them but you guys can hear them more clearly on TV."

Maguire's defensive partner John Stones told BBC Sport: "Personally I didn't hear it, but was told about it after.

"It's so sad to think about that this happens at our games. I hope UEFA or whoever needs to take care of it does. We stand together as a team and did do before the game and we will continue fighting for what we believe in as a team and what we think is right."

In 2019, Bulgaria were handed a punishment of playing two games behind closed doors – with one suspended for two years – after a section of fans racially abused England players during a Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia.

England won the game 6-0, with play having to be stopped twice due to the chanting. UEFA also fined Bulgaria's football association €75,000.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest footballer of all time and will have a "huge impact" on Manchester United after rejoining the club, according to Red Devils captain Harry Maguire.

Five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo sealed a shock switch from Juventus to United on Tuesday, returning to the club where he spent six seasons earlier in his career.

The Portugal captain scored 118 goals in 292 appearances for United the first time around, helping the club to eight major honours during that successful period.

He remained prolific across nine years with Real Madrid and three with Juventus, scoring a combined 551 goals in 572 matches in all competitions.

Ronaldo is set to make his second United debut against Newcastle United on September 11 and Maguire cannot wait to link up with the superstar forward.

"It's amazing," Maguire said at a news conference on Wednesday while away on England duty. "Obviously I'm here at the moment so my focus on is on tomorrow's game.

"But for him to sign back for the club, for me the greatest player to play the game, it's amazing to have him and I'm sure he's going to have a huge impact on and off the field.

"Many players can look and learn and improve and then obviously it's going to improve our team as well with this goal scoring record, so it's amazing to have him in the club.

"I'm looking forward to meeting him in a few days."

Maguire is set to start England's World Cup qualifying clash with Hungary in Budapest on Thursday – the Three Lions' first match since losing the Euro 2020 final to Italy.

Gareth Southgate's men have won all three Group I matches so far but Maguire has warned his team-mates they must be ready for the showdown with second-placed Hungary.

"We need to be because it's going to be a tough test away to Hungary," he said. "If we're not ready mentally we won't perform our best and we won't get the result we need.

"The mentality of the squad will be tested and we need to overcome that and can show what we're about."

England are unbeaten in their past 13 matches against Hungary, winning 11 of those, since losing four in a row between 1953 and 1962 by an aggregate score of 17-5.

The Three Lions have only lost one of their past 50 matches in qualifying for the Euros and World Cup, meanwhile, going down 2-1 to the Czech Republic in October 2019.

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United was not just a shock to football fans. 

Those inside the game seemed in disbelief, too, but United players past and present were ecstatic at the news. 

News of Ronaldo's impending move from Juventus sparked an outpouring of joy on social media. 

Among the first to react was a man who apparently played a role in bringing Ronaldo back to Old Trafford, former skipper Rio Ferdinand. 

He was not alone, as another former Red Devils legend, Edwin van der Sar, also weighed in. 

But it was the current United players who seemed most pleased about Ronaldo's return.

Raphael Varane's move to Manchester United has finally gone through.

United confirmed at the end of July that they had reached an agreement with Real Madrid to purchase the France centre-back for a fee believed to be in the region of £42.7million (€50m).

Varane had one year left on his contract with Madrid, who have been looking to trim their squad due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having moved to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2011, Varane has won three LaLiga titles and the Champions League on four occasions.

He racked up over 350 appearances for Los Blancos and arrives at Old Trafford as one of the world's finest defenders. Indeed, Varane has played 79 times for France, winning the World Cup in 2018 before featuring in all four of Les Bleus' games at Euro 2020.

With his switch to United now official, Stats Perform used Opta data to assess just what he can bring to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's defence.

 

FRONT-FOOT DEFENDING AND AERIAL DOMINANCE

In the absence of Sergio Ramos for much of last season, Varane ranked second among Madrid defenders in terms of both duels won (110) and interceptions (36) in LaLiga.

His aerial presence also came to the fore – with the former Lens man registering 72.3 successful aerial duels, more than double the figure that any of his fellow Madrid defenders managed.

Out of LaLiga defenders to contest 20 or more aerial battles last term, Varane led the way with a 76 per cent success rate.

Combined with Harry Maguire's ability when it comes to winning headers, United seem set to have a centre-back pairing which can dominate in both boxes.

Perhaps surprisingly given Maguire's aerial power, United conceded a total of 14 set-piece goals in the Premier League last season, a tally surpassed only by Leeds United (15) – the Red Devils' first opponents of 2021-22.

Varane would seem to immediately offer a greater impact in this regard than Victor Lindelof, who won just 59.4 per cent of the aerials he went up for in 2020-21, while Maguire won 72.9 per cent of his tussles in the air.

When compared per 90 minutes played, Varane won 2.4 aerial duels across all competitions as opposed to Lindelof's tally of 1.8.

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire and, in Varane, they seem to have a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

THE BEST FORM OF ATTACK IS... DEFENCE?

Another flaw in United's backline was that they often looked cumbersome when Maguire and Lindelof were up against direct runners.

Varane will add some much-needed pace, and that extra speed should – in theory – enable United to push further upfield: their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their goal last season was deeper than six other Premier League sides.

A higher line would make attacking easier and perhaps keep the opposition shot count down. United faced 317 in 2020-21, more than Arsenal, Wolves, Brighton and Hove Albion, and relegated Fulham. Limiting attempts on goal would also reduce the pressure on the goalkeeper, as David de Gea and Dean Henderson, who is still recovering from coronavirus, continue to battle for the number-one spot.

Varane also offers a tactical bonus, to which Solskjaer has already hinted: he can play comfortably enough in a back three.

Maguire, Varane and Lindelof would represent an imposing rearguard and allow the rejuvenated Luke Shaw to push up as a wing-back. If United's pursuit of Kieran Trippier proves fruitful, even better. A 3-4-1-2 would give Solskjaer that balance of defensive security without compromising too much on attacking quality, which could be essential for the biggest derbies, knockout games or cup finals.

ON THE BALL

In terms of possession, there is not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt.

The Sweden international – who has a wicked long pass in his arsenal – averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests the duo are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies are not hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

Pep Guardiola's quest to conquer Europe and continue domestic domination with Manchester City has seen him sign Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish in a deal reportedly worth £100million.

Grealish becomes the most expensive signing in Premier League history after being prised away from Villa Park, where he had spent his entire career and captained his boyhood club since 2019.

The England international, who helped the Three Lions to a first major final appearance in 55 years at Euro 2020, has regularly been linked away from Villa but committed his future after rumoured interest from Manchester United, signing a long-term contract in 2020.

In the 2020-21 campaign, the 25-year old contributed with six league goals and 10 assists, while also creating 81 chances across 26 appearances for the Villains.

Dean Smith will no longer have the playmaker to call upon, though, as Guardiola has demolished the previous Premier League transfer record – set by Paul Pogba's return to United in 2016 – to secure Grealish's services.

After City's record-breaking acquisition of Grealish, Stats Perform looks at the other most expensive signings in English top-flight history.

PAUL POGBA – Juventus to Manchester United, £89.3m

Jose Mourinho's first transfer window with the Red Devils saw the France midfielder return to Old Trafford in a then-world record transfer.

Since making that reunion in 2016-17, only Marcus Rashford (78) and Anthony Martial (64) have been involved in more Premier League goals for United than Pogba (57 – 28 goals, 29 assists), while the midfielder has created more top-flight chances (207) than any other player for the club during this period.

He scored and assisted one apiece for France at Euro 2020, while only Antoine Griezmann (10) created more chances than Pogba's eight for Les Bleus.

HARRY MAGUIRE – Leicester City to Manchester United £80m

United broke the world transfer record for a defender in 2002 when they signed Rio Ferdinand for £30m and 17 years later they acquired Maguire for more than double that fee.

The centre-back endured a tricky start to life in Manchester, however, his quality eventually shone through as he strung together 71 consecutive appearances for United.

Despite missing the last four games of the 2020-21 campaign, Maguire ranked second in the Premier League for aerial challenges won (135) and fifth for successful duels (203) before featuring prominently at Euro 2020 for England.

 

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Southampton to Liverpool, £75m

Jurgen Klopp, albeit under contentious circumstances, convinced Van Dijk to move away from St. Mary's Stadium in December 2017.

The commanding Netherlands captain guided Liverpool to their sixth Champions League success in 2018-19 before playing a key role as the Reds ended their 30-year wait for an English title.

Van Dijk's absence severely affected their Premier League defence last term. Klopp's men have won 75.8 per cent of their league matches with Van Dijk in the side since his debut in January 2018, a figure that falls to 54.3 per cent in his absence.

 

ROMELU LUKAKU – Everton to Manchester United £75m

The Belgium forward never settled in at Old Trafford and left after two seasons, despite converting 42 times in 96 games for United.

Lukaku scored twice in United's stunning Champions League last-16 comeback victory over Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 before completing a switch to Inter, where he helped Antonio Conte's men to their first Scudetto since 2009-10.

During the title-winning campaign, Lukaku shunned doubts over his finishing as he converted almost one in four chances to bag 24 goals and improved his link-up play to form an effective partnership with Lautaro Martinez. Since his Inter debut only five players have scored more goals in Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku (64).

He has now been linked with a return to former club Chelsea in a deal which could shatter Grealish's new record.

 

JADON SANCHO – Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United £73m

After leaving Manchester City in 2017 for Borussia Dortmund, Sancho found himself signing for the red half of Manchester four years later. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pursued Sancho for multiple transfer windows and finally got his man in the wake of England's Euro 2020 shoot-out heartbreak.

Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, the 21-year-old has been directly involved in the joint-most goals of any English player across the top five European leagues (78), while he has played fewer minutes than Harry Kane – also on 78 – in this period.

Sancho also became the first Englishman to reach at least 10 assists for three consecutive seasons in Europe's top-five leagues since David Beckham, who achieved the feat between 1997-98 and 2000-01 for Alex Ferguson's United.

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

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