With that in mind, The Star’s James Shield identifies five of the most important items on the United manager’s agenda this summer. And analyses how a squad which came so close to returning to the top-flight can ensure its potential is realised when the 2022/23 campaign gets underway.
Make squad more efficient
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United deserved to win the second leg of their play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest. They were the better side, showed great character and lashings of heart. On reflection, the tie was lost 72 hours earlier during the first instalment of their double header. When Forest exposed a flaw in what otherwise remains a strong armoury.
Oli Norwood is a wonderful midfielder, with superb technical ability and excellent passing range. But if he is pressed, which Steve Cooper’s side did to good effect at Bramall Lane, he isn’t so effective.
This isn’t a criticism of John Fleck and Sander Berge. Far from it. But unless United change their system, which is unlikely, there are times when Norwood would benefit from greater protection. Also, the presence of someone alongside him capable of covering ground quickly and moving from box to box. John Lundstram, before his contract spat, if you like.
Forest’s Keinan Davis, whose introduction did more to save Forest than their goalkeeper Brice Samba, also highlighted how power combined with pace can impact upon a game. Injecting a little more of both would help accentuate United’s strengths and address some of their weaknesses.
Fine tune transfer strategy
Like many clubs in their position, United have been guilty of being too reactionary when it comes to recruitment. Not in terms of monitoring and identifying potential targets. Rather, when it comes to selling players and the timing of incoming signings.
With top-flight teams possessing both the profile and deep pockets to lure away the best footballers in the Championship, it isn’t entirely a problem of United’s own making. To a large extent, they are victims of circumstance and the financial inequalities which exist within the English game.
But football is a village and it is possible to predict which members of Heckingbottom’s squad are set to attract interest and from whom. Which means it is also possible to line-up alternative options and, in tandem with United’s talent scouts, ensure only those who can be immediately replaced are allowed to depart. Bids for those who don’t fall into this category must be resisted at all costs, even if the individual concerned makes it clear they want to depart. Otherwise, what’s the point of a contract?
AFC Bournemouth have been exceptional at this in the past and so, to a lesser extent, have Norwich City. So it can be done.
Solve the goals issue
Billy Sharp is still the best finisher at the football club. Which, at 36 years of age, tells you two things. One, despite being lauded for his record breaking exploits, the United captain is a far better striker than he is given credit for. And two, that many commentators chronicling events at the club have been guilty of falling into a common trap: Wages, not transfer fees, are now the most accurate barometer of a player’s calibre. Particularly those who operate up front.
Rhian Brewster’s return from injury should go a long way towards helping United become more potent going forward. Their record signing was beginning to prove his worth before succumbing to a hamstring complaint and, no slight on Sharp, but United will have to wean themselves off him at some point in the not so distant future.
Finding a way of allowing Oli McBurnie to be Oli McBurnie rather than someone who can perform a passable but still imperfect impression of a target man must also feature on the agenda. If United do want a big lump in attack, then bring one in.
Keep helping Iliman Ndiaye
Yes, the young Frenchman is raw. But he is also supremely gifted. Perhaps more so than any other player at Heckingbottom’s disposal.
With Morgan Gibbs-White departing, the 22-year-old is set to become even more important for United next term. So either a replacement for the England under-21 international must be sourced, which will be difficult, or Ndiaye’s role might have to be tweaked slightly. Because he is too good not to have on the pitch.
Heckingbottom’s brief means he can not spend too much time focusing on one particular person. But other members of his backroom staff - and possibly some experienced former players - could turn Ndiaye into a special project. This could be something to consider doing over the next few weeks, when the squad returns from its holidays. It would speed up his development and help quickly smooth out some of the rough edges in his game which inevitably still exist when you consider his route through football.
Ensure competition in key areas
United are like the Chelsea of the Championship. Their game revolves around what happens at wing back and - although this doesn’t happen quite so regularly in west London - their two outside centre-halves. If these positions aren’t functioning, then United are nowhere near as effective as they’d like.
Forest and Fulham, even though they were thrashed on the final day of the regular campaign at Bramall Lane, exposed some flaws in United’s defensive armoury which must be addressed - chiefly tracking opposition runners coming from deep lying positions.
But these can be addressed on the training pitch during pre-season.
Jayden Bogle was a huge loss and so, before he returned from injury, was Chris Basham. United must make sure they have more strength in depth in these two key areas.