Season Review - 2021/22 - it does not get much better than this for United fans!
Our run to the Champions League final meant that we qualified for FIFA’s expanded Club World Cup, held in China in June 2021. UEFA had 8 of the 24 places, with 4 of them coming from England: ourselves, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. We beat Mexico’s Club America 3-1 and South Korea’s Jeonbuk 5-1 to win our mini-group and set up a quarter-final against Real Madrid. The long season caught up with the players and we lost 0-1 to a Madrid side that would go on to lift the trophy.
After our big spending the previous season I did not expect to be very active in the transfer market. Erling Haaland joined for £35m and back-up keeper Josip Posavec came in to replace the departing Sergio Romero. Jude Bellingham had been signed in January and he returned from a Championship winning loan spell at West Bromwich Albion. We were alerted to the availability of Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele but it was clear that he was committed to signing for Chelsea and I was not prepared to pay him the kind of wage he was looking for. With Juan Mata leaving on a free transfer and Fred being sold to West Ham United for £15.5m I eventually decided to bolster our attack, breaking our transfer record to activate the £90m release clause of Jamaican forward Leon Bailey. As a left-footed winger Bailey was the perfect fit for Ryan Giggs’ number 11 shirt that had been vacant since 2019. I also made changes to some other squad numbers; switching James Maddison from the number 25 he initially wore to 17, Mason Greenwood to 19 and Moussa Dembele being rewarded for his Champions League winning goal and Premier League golden boot by getting the number 9 shirt. The previous holder of that shirt, Anthony Martial, was given number 14 but he could no longer be guaranteed a regular starting place so he went to Valencia on loan.
We opened our league campaign at Tottenham and two late goals from Maddison and Rashford gave us a 2-0 victory. Rashford then scored twice in a 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup at Belfast’s Windsor Park. It was only the second time in the club’s history that we had won that competition and I was delighted to have done so. There were further 2-0 victories in the league over Aston Villa and Burnley and the only blemish in August was Rashford’s missed penalty in the last minute of a goalless Manchester derby at Old Trafford. We were absolutely flying in the autumn, keeping pace with an equally relentless Liverpool at the top of the table. We won all six of our Champions League group games and although a rotated side lost 0-1 at home to Tottenham in the League Cup we remained unbeaten in the league going in to the new year. Dembele was scoring goals, including a hat trick in a 5-1 thrashing of Leicester on 1 December, and new signings Haaland and Bailey were also amongst the goals. Jude Bellingham’s opportunities were limited to start with but he announced his arrival with a stoppage time winner from 25 yards in a 3-2 win over Newcastle.
The goals dried up a bit in January. Although we best West Brom 4-0 and Southampton 5-0 (with another Dembele hat trick), we drew 0-0 at Chelsea and Aston Villa and could only manage 1-1 draw at Bournemouth. We also needed a replay to progress past Watford in the FA Cup. We returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory at home to Tottenham but that game was marred by Bailey breaking his wrist and being ruled out for eight weeks. Liverpool had a wobble of their own, losing for the first time in the league at Arsenal, but they came back strongly and were only a point behind us by the time of the winter break in February. We were still unbeaten and the league was in our own hands with 12 matches remaining, but the relative drop off in form of Rashford, Sancho, Haaland and Fernandes was a bit of a concern for me. I hoped that a week’s holiday would allow them to recharge their batteries for the business end of the season.
So much for the rest. In the first minute of the next match at home to Cardiff City a robust challenge on Marcus Rashford broke his ankle and for the second year running ruled the poor lad out of the title run in. We had something of an injury crisis in the wide positions with Sancho and Greenwood picking up knocks to join Bailey and Rashford on the sidelines. I had to make a tactical change and did so by switching to 4-1-3-2 with Rice playing behind a three man midfield of Maddison, McTominay and Fernandes and Haaland partnering Dembele up front. The results were impressive, we won 1-0 at Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup before beating Arsenal 4-0 and effectively ending their title hopes. We went a goal down at Leicester but a Haaland hat trick meant we came back to win 4-1. Liverpool’s form was relentless but we were a point ahead with eight games left.
We faced AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League and after a 1-1 draw at the San Siro we narrowly beat them 2-1 at Old Trafford. We had Ben Chilwell to thank for a last minute clearance off the line when a goal would have eliminated us. Barcelona were up next and a tight tie was settled in the first leg when James and Haaland came off the bench to both score in a 2-0 victory. We always looked comfortable in the second leg as we played out a 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. Chelsea were then brushed aside 3-0 on aggregate to set up a dream final against bitter rivals Liverpool. Progress in Europe meant that our Premier League home fixture against Liverpool was moved to the last week of the season. In the FA Cup, a 2-1 sixth round victory at West Ham was followed by a Wembley semi-final against Burnley. I rested Maddison but goals from Bailey, McTominay and Garner put us in to the final, where we would again face Liverpool.
So both Manchester Untied and Liverpool had the chance to win the treble at the other’s expense. The first showdown was in the Premier League and our rescheduled match at Old Trafford on Wednesday 11 May. We had 88 points from 36 games, with Arsenal second on 87 but having played a game more. Liverpool had drawn two out of their least three and had 85 from 36 games, so a win for us would clinch the title. It was a tense occasion with so much at stake. We had the best of the first half but Liverpool took the lead after half time when Fabinho took advantage of some poor marking from a free kick to head in at the far post. It looked like being one of those nights as we struggled to break through their experienced defence, but in the 79th minute Maguire connected to a Fernandes corner and equalised. It was a massive point for us and we went in to the last day of the season top on 89 points, with Arsenal and Liverpool on 87 and 86 respectively. A home match against bottom side Sheffield Wednesday, who were already relegated, was as kind a fixture as we could have wished for and we enjoyed an emphatic 6-1 victory to secure the club’s first Premier League title since 2013, as well as emulating Arsenal's 2004 'invincibles' by going a whole league season unbeaten. Marcus Rashford returned from injury and came off the bench to score.
The FA Cup Final against Liverpool was a disappointment. We took the lead through a Dembele goal on 28 minutes but they equalised from the penalty spot just before half time and then took the lead on the hour though a Rhian Brewster goal. Dembele had an equalising goal disallowed for offside before Joel Matip sealed Liverpool’s 3-1 victory with five minutes to go. The Champions League Final in Munich on 28 May provided the chance for revenge and to win back-to-back European Cups for the first time in the club’s history. There wasn’t much in the first half, though we struggled against Liverpool’s high pressing intensity. Dembele missed a fine chance on 23 minutes before a 25-metre left footed drive from Maddison on 41 minutes gave us a half time advantage. Liverpool dominated most of the play in the second half and equalised through Firmino after 64 minutes. I was pleased to make it to extra time and was already thinking of penalty takers when Naby Keita was sent off for a second booking just before the end of the first period. This was our chance to win it and straight after the start of the second period Luke Shaw won the ball back and played it quickly up to Dembele, who advanced and fired home the winning goal from just inside the penalty area. We had successfully retained the Champions League, beating our biggest rivals on the biggest stage of all!