Manchester United will play in the Champions League again next season.
A faintly bizarre 4-1 home win over Chelsea on Thursday secured a top-four finish for Erik ten Hag’s men with a game to go.
Qualifying for UEFA’s top club competition will allow senior United staff to initiate their plans for the summer.
Mason Mount appears to be chief among those plans.
The 24-year-old was unavailable for Chelsea last night because of a pelvis injury but remains the man of the moment for both clubs. While Chelsea would like to secure the England midfielder’s long-term future with a new contract, Mount is thought to be leaning towards a move to Manchester United in the summer, with talks expected between the two clubs imminently.
One can only imagine what he thought of the first half at Old Trafford, where both sides appeared unsure of how to play when out of possession.
Mount may have found himself swayed by the actions of Casemiro, who headed in Christian Eriksen’s free kick to give United the lead in the sixth minute before providing a majestic lofted through ball just before the half-time whistle. The Brazilian’s pass found Jadon Sancho, who ran in behind Chelsea’s defence before squaring to Anthony Martial, who doubled the lead.
This season has seen several United players improve by playing next to last summer’s £70million ($86.4m at current exchange rates) buy Casemiro. If Mount was to join in the coming window, he too might enjoy the defensive security and line-breaking passes offered by the five-time Champions League winner. But now that Champions League football has been secured, should Mount and United strike a deal?
His playing profile makes him a natural fit for Ten Hag… if he was joining the coach on his Ajax teams, which came to play a 4-3-3 with midfielders such as Lasse Schone, Frenkie de Jong, Steven Berghuis and Ryan Gravenberch as the box-to-box midfielders.
This mooted transfer to Ten Hag’s United does have potential, but might not be a seamless adaptation.
The most obvious move would be for him to replace Eriksen next to Casemiro in the starting XI.
If Luke Shaw was to remain an overlapping full-back, he could combine with Marcus Rashford and Sancho on the United left, along with Mount making late entries into the final third.
Those three players had varying success against Chelsea on Thursday, with Shaw being substituted at half-time as a precautionary measure because of a back injury. Rashford – on for the injured Antony after half an hour – scored his side’s fourth goal to cap off the victory. Antony’s injury also saw Sancho move onto the right wing, the position he was supposedly signed to play in the summer of 2021, and he had one of his better United games, attacking the space behind Conor Gallagher and linking up with team-mates.
All three would find their skill sets complimented by a player such as Mount.
Suppose Ten Hag tasked one of his full-backs to invert and join Casemiro in central midfield. In that case, there is the option of Mount pushing forward to join Bruno Fernandes, creating the sort of box midfield that has made Brighton, Arsenal and Manchester City so dangerous this season.
Mount moving to United would be a gamble for player and club, as it would mean asking a midfielder most comfortable as a cog in an already well-functioning machine to take on important responsibilities regarding how the entire mechanism works.
Managers including Gareth Southgate and Thomas Tuchel have enjoyed having Mount as an option because he is a seven-to-eight out of 10 in everything you want from an attacking midfielder. But they repeatedly pick him because he is an eight-to-nine out of 10 in the defensive tasks.
The biggest games of Mount’s career have often seen him tasked with winning the ball off the opposition’s deepest midfielder before driving forward and helping his team in counter-attacking movements.
It worked well in Chelsea’s 2021 Champions League final win, with Mount and N’Golo Kante scuppering Manchester City’s plans. It did not work as well in the European Championship final against Italy a couple of months later, where Mount was overwhelmed by Marco Verratti interchanges and clever movements with Jorginho.
Chelsea looked poorer last night in part due to Mount’s injury. In his absence, Fernandes had greater freedom in central midfield, allowing him to attack Frank Lampard’s team at will. Conversely, United looked soft in central midfield partly due to Eriksen’s lack of mobility and physicality in defensive moments.
Ten Hag’s men won 4-1 because they were better than a slipshod and demotivated Chelsea. In securing a top-four finish and winning the Carabao Cup in his debut season, Ten Hag has exceeded many United fans’ preseason predictions, but there are further challenges to come.
“This club belongs in the Champions League,” Ten Hag said at full-time. “Finishing in the top four was the main objective. The competition is tough, there are many teams with really good squads, good managers and high budgets.
“For this moment, it (top four) is the maximum, but we want more and I don’t have a lot of patience. Standards have to go up. Manchester City are playing outstanding football but we have a way to go.”
United will now finish the season with at least 72 points, an impressive total but some way behind the league champions’ minimum of 89. The United manager is aware of what is needed to leap from top-four finishers to title contenders (He also said “We need better players if we want to compete for the highest” when asked about squad building following the Chelsea game).
Mount could be one potential signing to help bridge that gap. The Englishman could provide the same progressive passing, set-piece delivery and late entries into the box of Eriksen, while improving United’s defensive intensity when out of possession. There is some method in United’s pursuit of someone seven years younger than the Dane who can provide similar attacking output plus superior defensive resistance.
The question is whether “better than Eriksen/United’s other box-to-box midfielders” is a good enough benchmark for what United want to achieve in future seasons.
(Photo: Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)