Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure to turn results around quickly
After last weekend’s humiliation of historic proportions, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been handed a second chance to turn Manchester United’s fortunes around, starting this weekend away to Tottenham.
Though there are currently no indications that United have a replacement lined up, Solskjaer has to steady the ship before the November international break or risks forcing the United hierarchy into making a change.
Saturday’s visit to north London is followed by a Champions League trip to play Atalanta, then a Manchester derby at Old Trafford. All three games will have to be navigated successfully in order for Solskjaer to prove he is capable of coming back from this.
In the past, the Norwegian has managed to dig himself out of trouble fairly easily, but this will be the greatest achievement of his Old Trafford career – as a player or manager – if he manages to turn the tide.
Here, The Independent outlines the many problems Solskjaer has to address and how he may go about solving them…
Avoid another blowout
The defence is Solskjaer’s biggest issue. One clean sheet in 21 games dating back to last April is a damning statistic but United’s troubles at the back go much deeper.
While United have the Premier League’s fourth-best attack this season, they also have the fifth-worst defence and it’s not merely a case of under-performing either. According to xG conceded, they deserve to be the fifth-worst too.
All that’s despite the defeat to Liverpool being the first time United have played one of the three teams to have scored more than them. The other two, Manchester City and Chelsea, will follow in the coming weeks.
Sources believe anything like a repeat of Sunday’s 5-0 could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, especially if it comes in the Manchester derby.
Solskjaer has to tighten United up and many recognise that will involve reversing the form of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, who have struggled since impressing for England at the summer’s European Championship.
Maguire’s performances have come under particular scrutiny, as has Solskjaer’s decision to bring the United captain back quickly after recovering from injury, which was questioned by some members of the dressing room.
Raphael Varane is back in training, though rushing him back risks a repeat of the criticism over Maguire’s selection.
In any case, the problem is not predominantly down to personnel. Maguire was one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League last year, while Shaw was widely regarded as the best left-back in Europe.
While errors and poor individual performances have played their part for a number of the goals conceded in recent weeks, United’s defensive issues are largely a collective failure spread across the pitch and will not be solved by one or two in the backline regaining form.
Compensate for Ronaldo’s lack of pressing
Some believe Cristiano Ronaldo’s reluctance to press has hurt United
Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of any inclination to press is no secret by now and has been highlighted as one of those issues further up the pitch contributing to the number of goals conceded at the other.
Given that he is 36-years-old and has never hassled or harried the opposition much when out of possession, some have argued with good reason that it is unrealistic to expect Ronaldo to suddenly start doing so, yet he is closing down even less than he did at Juventus last season.
Ronaldo was pressing around seven times per 90 minutes in Serie A last year. At United, that has dropped to four times per 90. His contributions out-of-possession have been steadily declining for several years now, though has never dropped off as sharply as it has at United.
Perhaps that is a tactical choice by Solskjaer, though it suggests Ronaldo is capable of at least pressing a little more.
Still, even if Ronaldo steps it up slightly, United need to compensate for his reluctance or inability to close down. This cannot be done by the type of madcap, one-man pressing that Bruno Fernandes has attempted at times, most notably in the build-up to Liverpool’s first goal.
The slow, simple stepping out which followed was also too easy to play around. Both Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka failed to close down quickly enough or at an angle which would block off the passing lane, allowing Liverpool to play through their press and pull the rest of their United team-mates out of shape.
If United are to press, it has to be coordinated. Alternatively, Solskjaer could decide to sit off, hold shape, deny the opposition space and create on the counter-attack. Either way, the halfway house of busy but disorganised pressing would spell another disaster.
Find the right combination up front
A consequence of signing Ronaldo was an embarrassment of riches up front without enough room for all of those players to earn regular minutes.
United have 11 established first team players whose best performances have come in one of the four most advanced positions in Solakjaer’s usual 4-2-3-1 set-up.
Though the United manager was initially able to pass this off as good competition for places, the first rumblings of discontent regarding playing time emerged from the dressing room in the wake of Sunday’s result. With Ronaldo and Fernandes considered first-choice, nine players are left to compete for two positions.
Paul Pogba is perhaps Solskjaer’s biggest headache. Pogba’s best football in recent months has come on the left of the attack, rather than in a more natural role as part of the midfield double pivot, though Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho appear to be Solskjaer’s preferred options out on that flank.
That headache has eased, for now at least, on account of Pogba’s three-match ban after his straight red card against Liverpool. Rashford, meanwhile, has started back-to-back games following his return from shoulder surgery, suggesting that he is at the front of the queue to play on the left.
On the right, Solskjaer has rewarded Greenwood for being one of United’s better performers during these difficult opening weeks of the season, handing him regular starts.
There are concerns, however, over Greenwood’s compatibility with Ronaldo – with neither linking up particularly well on-the-pitch – and doubts over whether the 20-year-old is more suited as a centre-forward in the long run.
Jesse Lingard has impressed in the limited minutes he has been granted, sometimes on the right, and may wonder what he has to do to earn a regular chance.
Edinson Cavani hardly deserved to lose his starting status after impressing last season yet appears to have been reduced to an impact substitute by Ronaldo’s arrival. The Uruguayan was the second-busiest presser among Solskjaer’s attacking options last season and has added a different element to United’s play when used this term.
While Cavani can count on minutes here and there, it appears as though other understudies like Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek and the largely forgotten Juan Mata are a long way off starting regularly. Opportunities to rotate are minimal too, given the early elimination from the League Cup and the importance currently placed upon every game.
Those on the fringes of a bloated squad may find themselves stuck there. Solskjaer knows it is an impossible task to keep all of his attacking players happy. One or two high-profile names have to be left on the sidelines in order for United to play with any kind of balance and the unlucky few will have to make do with cameos from the bench.
The situation is far from ideal and the product of muddled squad-building but the sooner he settles on a coherent front four, the better for all involved.
Rebalance lop-sided attack
Jadon Sancho has not hit the ground running since joining United
United have long had a lop-sided attack with a left-sided bias under Solskjaer.
Usually, their build-up play starts through Maguire, with Shaw then moving the ball up the pitch, then either he, Pogba and Fernandes are left to the bulk of the chance creation.
Last season, 42 per cent of United’s attacks came down the left while only 33 per cent came down the right. It is a similar story with other teams – City, for one, can be surprisingly lop-sided – but the degree to which it is pronounced at United has made their play stale and predictable.
Wan-Bissaka’s well-documented limitations in possession are a part of the problem. Though significant work has gone into improving the right-back’s game going forward at Carrington, he is first and foremost a conservative, defensive full-back.
Having ultimately abandoned plans to sign Kieran Trippier during the summer, United could do worse than turning to Diogo Dalot as a more expansive and adventurous right-back, at least in games where they are expected to play on the front foot.
The right-sided issue was supposed to be solved by one player, though: Sancho.
Given that United pursued the 21-year-old for more than two years before finally completing his signing this summer, his bit-part role and the lack of any clear plan for how he is meant to fit into Solskjaer’s set-up has surprised many.
Though Sancho was comfortable playing across the attack while at Borussia Dortmund, he appeared a natural fit for United’s void on the right but has only played on the left to date under Solskjaer.
With Rashford back, a switch out to the right may be the logical next step. While some may fairly question whether Sancho’s form is deserving of a starting place, United have missed a true creator on the right for a decade or more.
It may be the new, added dimension which Solskjaer’s attack is crying out for.
Qualify for the Champions League knockout stages
A victory against Atalanta in Bergamo next week would be significant for Solskjaer, putting United on nine points at the top of Group F and five clear of third-place, no matter what the result between Villarreal and Young Boys.
From there, winning either of their final two games would be enough to avoid a repeat of last season’s group stage exit and prevent Solskjaer from once again dropping down into the Europa League.
Despite a more favourable draw and a last-16 place being the minimum for a club of their stature and resources, reaching the knockout stages would still represent at least some improvement on last year and avoid a substantial financial hit.
United earned approximately €62m in prize money for their performance in European competition last season, of which only around €10m was earned during the run to the Europa League final.
United would almost have earned the same amount by simply reaching the Champions League last-16, where each participant received €9.5m.
Like United, Manchester City were also losing European finalists last season but came away with €103m as Champions League runners-up. There is simply much more prize money and prestige on offer in Europe’s elite club competition than in its secondary counterpart.
United have not played in the Champions League knockout stages since the first few weeks of Solskjaer’s permanent reign and have not qualified from the group stage since Jose Mourinho was in charge.
It may not be enough to save Solskjaer’s job on its own if domestic results continued to underwhelm, though it would avoid giving the United hierarchy another reason to dispense with his services.
Sign a holding midfielder
The much-maligned Fred and Scott McTominay are nevertheless United’s best midfield pairing
For all the valid criticism of the Ronaldo signing and questions over whether he is hindering United out of possession, Solskjaer’s side were just as open and vulnerable to counter-attacks in the 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers before his arrival.
Ironically, that was the one clean sheet United have kept in their last 21 games, though they would have left Molineux with a point at best if not for David de Gea’s heroics in goal.
United started with a midfield of Pogba and Fred that day, though given the ease with which Wolves moved through the middle of the pitch, Solskjaer has not started the pair together in a pivot since. Pogba and McTominay did not fare much better for another fortunate win, Villarreal’s visit to Old Trafford.
The ‘McFred’ partnership is much-criticised and limited in many ways, most glaringly in possession and when offering for the ball during build-up, but together they are the only midfield pairing which has a degree of functional, defensive stability.
Rival supporters have mocked United in the past for attempting to solve every problem in the transfer market, though this is one area of the squad which has seen a variety of different experiments with existing members of the squad and there is still no established, first-choice midfield partnership.
Of all United’s problems, it is the one which will only be solved by making a signing, a signing that should have been made during the summer. Solskjaer cannot turn to the market now, though, and will have to wait until January at the very earliest or more likely next year. Whether he can survive that long is most uncertain.
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