There was a moment in yesterday evening’s game with Liverpool where I’m sure most supporters would have felt the same nauseating feeling I had.
That we were about to witness a repeat of the 6-1 defeats we saw Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, and the Manchester City billionaire’s club of 2011, inflict on United at Old Trafford.
It was a distressing reminder of the fragility of the defence. A reminder of just why Scott McTominay and Fred have been chosen to play as a defensive screen and just why many felt a defensive signing was a priority. Without the ten goals conceded against Liverpool and Spurs, United’s defensive record is the second best in the league – an indication of the level of protection that has been necessary in order to keep it that way, and a reminder, as football often brings, of a player’s quality being highlighted more by his absence than his presence, as we have surely seen in Harry Maguire.
In Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Fred, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and every United fan – witnessed a soft centre collapse in on itself repeatedly, making the entirety of the team look even worse. Dean Henderson looked vulnerable, with every mistake punished. Luke Shaw looked out of position and this was worrying considering all of the danger came from that side. Aaron Wan-Bissaka did not play particularly poorly but his positioning was made to look worse by the poorer positioning and rash judgment of Bailly.
Playing six yards off our own byline in defence and being unable to maintain possession – much less dominate the pattern of the game – in midfield, are worrying hallmarks we saw all too often last season, and are clearly still issues that are there at the club the minute one or two changes are made.
In the end United’s embarrassment was more in feeling than in scoreline – though we are splitting hairs, considering any home defeat to Liverpool is difficult to stomach, but you know what I mean – but neither Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or the power above him (whoever that currently is) should be ignorant of what threatened to happen after 55 minutes and how far that places United away from a genuine push to move from their position of best of the rest to a team that is fighting for a league title and going into semi-finals and finals as favourites.
In August 2018, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly were taken apart by Brighton, and most felt that it was a watershed performance. You wouldn’t expect to see them play for United again, and certainly not together. They did. They have. They continue to.
If they were playing for Manchester City, well, today they would not be. Some might say that’s a consequence of City’s ability to write off £30-50m signings in a way that United cannot, and that is certainly at least partly true, but it should not be the case that a club the size of United should be dealing with something that was an emergency three or four years ago and needed fixing then.
For it to have continued to be a problem for so long means it is no longer one that Solskjaer can claim to merely have inherited. It’s clearly a second choice defence which is a step forward but it is clear it’s not a second choice defence capable of handling a fight for the toughest honours. Football these days is more of a squad game than ever, with City’s gradual manipulation of hoovering the better players from the weaker clubs in such a stockpile fashion a clever strategy that has successfully strengthened them and weakened the league.
Liverpool were not so proud that they would turn down one of the better experienced players to come through that system – James Milner – but for United to go looking for a bargain in the form of a Sergio Aguero or whatever defender they will cast off… let’s just say it would come with a price much heavier than what the transfer would cost, an exercise proven by the unpopular signing of Michael Owen a few years back.
Solskjaer has gone the other route. You can’t avoid spending – no-one is pretending he hasn’t – but there has been careful supplementation from the younger players who are capable of handling the step up. Mason Greenwood and Scott McTominay have handled it. Axel Tuanzebe and Brandon Williams have been used more sparingly, though there could be an argument to say they both deserved more of a fair shake for more game time this season.
But you could not accuse Solskjaer of not giving players a chance (mostly, before Donny’s agent contacts me). Loyalty has proven to be the key for Luke Shaw, and for Lindelof as a partner for Maguire. Lindelof has enjoyed his best season but it appears to be the case that he has been the beneficiary of three good defenders around him, rather than him improving what is next to him.
McTominay and Fred might not stand out as the best two central midfielders at the club but they have been the most effective partnership in front of the defence. Fred’s energy has complemented McTominay’s tenacity. The partnership has worked in big games. It’s got good results. But United’s next step is to control games like that if they want to be better. It’s going to be a task for Ole. Does a more refined, disciplined, economic and energetic ball-player help McTominay or Fred more? If I was personally making the call I’d say United are better placed to try a new midfielder alongside McTominay but he does need to improve on the ball.
So a new defender and central midfielder are the priorities but so is the right side of attack, or the central area, if Greenwood is to play from that position. He has been in good form lately but it’s clear that United need more quality attackers. Look at the difference Cavani has made. If United could add another forward and a right-sided schemer, the benefit it would have in the freedom given to Greenwood and Fernandes could elevate the side further still.
But some of these decisions are dictated by the management of the squad and the outgoings. Will Inter Milan be happy to buy Matic, Lindelof and Martial?
What will happen with Pogba? He has played well but is it a strong enough run of form that makes you think we should continue to build around him or use his value as an asset this summer?
The Pogba and Martial conundrums are just that. They’re not easy situations to manage. Neither is the goalkeeper, and you might argue Solskjaer brought that upon himself by making a change too early.
In the new Sir Alex Ferguson documentary, he recalls the difficult decision he made to drop Jim Leighton from the 1990 FA Cup Final and call up Les Sealey. He discussed how Leighton was the better goalkeeper but was low on confidence. Sealey, however, believed he was the best. United needed that confidence in their defence.
You could argue that is a similar scenario to now, although De Gea has always seemed more assured than Leighton ever was. The issue is the migration out of the team has already commenced and a move to Spain looks inevitable even though it’s still a reasonable question whether or not Henderson is better or if he’s done enough to establish himself as the number one. Henderson and De Gea looks far healthier than Henderson and Heaton.
Solskjaer’s comments about the porous nature of goals being let in at home this season. He said that once fans are back, “We’re going to tighten that up.” He’s either being very optimistic or ignorant of the all-too-real memory many of us have of the anxiety and panic that would set in the players when the crowd would get nervous about the pointless playing of the ball around the back.
It’s worth remembering what the expectations were at the start of the season, and particularly at the closure of the summer transfer window.
United just about qualified for the Champions League in the last game of last season and their ascension to second place this season can be pinned on a number of factors – an improvement in the form of the players, good management, and the drop in form of other clubs at various times. United finished third last season but last night was strong enough evidence that Liverpool are healthier in terms of squad, and should be tipped to finish above us next year.
Let us not be lulled into false senses of where we are, at the same time as not wishing to get carried away with either praise or criticism.
It’s obvious – at least to me – that we’re healthier than we have been in an all-round capacity since David Moyes inherited a squad that won the title. The major reason for that is the manager. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has, in the past few weeks, become the longest serving manager the club have had since Ferguson.
We’re lucky, in a sense, that we didn’t go backwards after failing to strengthen from a position of strength last summer. Some might say that the progression this season is vindication of all the actions that led us here but I’m not so certain. It has felt at times like with just a couple of quality additions, United could have been a lot closer.
If the stories of Jadon Sancho’s transfer fee moving from £100m to £80m are true, is it worth losing a year of what he could have provided for saving the £20m?
It’s not just about spending money, it’s about spending it wisely.
The Glazers have spoken about the commitment to restoring relationships. That has started with a positive move, addressing the calls for acknowledgement of Jimmy Murphy on the Old Trafford ground. They’ve said they’ll enter dialogue with supporters.
Spokespeople are being more vocal about their long-term ambition with the club, and even if that’s not what most fans want to hear, the fact they’re hearing it at all is a step forward.
But actions are louder than words. They’ll need to be, considering all of the words have been about caution and sensible spending.
The events of the last few weeks should have been enough to remind the owners, and the manager, that it is not enough to simply coast along. Bringing in the players that are needed is not the issue that is forefront of the minds of supporters who are protesting, but nor should it be neglected.
Because of these events, though, it has to be a summer of noise from United. A statue of Jimmy Murphy is just the start. Fix the roof. Buy the players, back the manager. For once in seven years make that statement about being a serious football club again.
Something has to change.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it needs to change sooner than the summer, and the events of the next two weeks will tell us a little bit more about him as a manager. Can he turn around a flagging momentum – United ended the 17/18 season very flat and couldn’t pick themselves up for the FA Cup Final. It was a similar story the season after. It threatened to be that way after a couple of silly draws and an FA Cup semi-defeat last year.
If United can pick up to consolidate second and then bag a Europa League, then maybe Solskjaer himself will have done enough to stave off the criticism of those who still have concerns about him leading the club.
Personally, I would remain content in the opinion that he’s the right man and deserves further backing, but I can understand that if the next few weeks don’t see that rubber stamp of success that means we can identify clear progression from last year, the summer will feel as uncertain on the pitch as it does off it.