So much about this Manchester United remains completely unfathomable. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s overall plan being the greatest mystery, which features within it a wide range of individual enigmas: Paul Pogba’s best position; the purpose of Donny van de Beek; Aaron Wan Bissaka being the best option of 804 right-backs, to name a few.
Two other riddles continued to baffle the Old Trafford faithful in the wake of the 1-1 draw with Everton.
Firstly, the McFred mystery. How could United, with the ambition they preach, go into this season with such an obvious weakness at the heart of their team?
Everton became the latest team to expose the gaping void in United’s midfield with a counter-attack goal wonderfully executed yet woefully guarded against. Demarai Gray started the move before Abdoulaye Doucoure provided the thrust and Andros Townsend the finish. It was a devastating break yet entirely preventable.
It was little wonder that Fred was replaced soon after Everton’s leveller, presumably due to a severely bruised ego. Twice in the space of a few seconds the United midfielder lost 50/50 duels with Gray, Everton’s renowned heavyweight, which left United’s retreating rearguard woefully exposed. Missing the first tackle was forgivable; being bundled out of the second was a genuine embarrassment.
What is Fred’s role? He’s not a creative presence so the assumption is that with him and Scott McTominay in the same team, United must be able to muster between them the equivalent of one fit-for-purpose holding midfielder. But no, United’s centre-backs remain woefully under-protected.
If Solskjaer hoped that signing Raphael Varane would cure the problems in his defence and midfield, the United boss was wrong again. Varane has settled very well and Harry Maguire’s hangover from the Euros has not been as heavy as some suggest, but United can’t keep clean sheets, primarily because their defence continues to be exposed by a midfield shield with all the robustness of a poppadom.
9 – Manchester United have conceded at least once in each of their last nine league matches at Old Trafford, their longest run of games without a clean sheet at home in the top-flight since February 1971 (10 games). Countered. pic.twitter.com/xjpQ1Sc0Hm
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 2, 2021
Fingering Fred may seem harsh given the collective abdication of responsibility at Old Trafford, but as United’s starting screener, he is such a glaring flaw in a side that should be scaring the wits out of opponents. Instead, the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, Southampton, West Ham, Young Boys – all teams to have taken points off United already this season – can look at a frightening forward line and formidable defence, yet still see plenty of reason to fancy their chances.
Because the blueprint for beating United is so simple. Sit back, defend the width of the penalty area, and break at speed when the chances arrive. Which they inevitably will. Newcastle followed that same plan, and had they a competent keeper and players who could finish their chances, even they would have taken a point from Old Trafford instead of a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired 4-1 shoeing.
No team with genuine title ambitions can afford to be so fallible or overly reliant on big-name players repeatedly coming up with big moments to paper over growing cracks.
But we must also question Solskjaer’s use of some of those stars. The dogged refusal to play Jadon Sancho on the right is as baffling as any of the stances the manager has taken in his reign so far at Old Trafford.
Early winners: Benitez, Doucoure and excellent Everton
Sancho was pursued for most of the time Solskjaer has been in charge and finally signed in the summer to fill another obvious weakness in United’s attack, on the right flank. Yet the £73million winger’s Old Trafford career has been spent so far almost entirely on the left.
Solskjaer might say that Mason Greenwood’s form dictates that he deserves to start, but there is such an obvious solution to satisfy both England internationals: Greenwood on the left, Sancho on the right.
Sancho replaced Anthony Martial whose first goal since February when he scored the fifth and eighth in a 9-0 win masked an otherwise anonymous display on the left, with the Frenchman struggling for the same reason Sancho is: both are so predominantly right-sided that any full-back with ample cover finds it easy to marshal them.
The uniqueness of Greenwood is his ability to go either way, so shifting him to the left should not reduce the 20-year-old’s threat. Which opens up the right flank for Sancho, who badly needs a more familiar environment if he is to settle at Old Trafford. Solskjaer’s stubborn refusal to swap his wingers, even briefly mid-match, is now bordering on weird.
Solskjaer has a fortnight to ponder the problems he seemingly has no solution to while evading the flak that will inevitably follow another disappointing result. And life is not about to get any easier when his players return from the international break. After a relatively kind start to the season, now follows a run of seven Premier League fixtures which includes meetings with all of their Big Six rivals as well as Leicester, all around a Champions League double-header against Atalanta that could shape Group F.
It is a period that allows for little time on the training ground, but given United’s obvious and repeated flaws, you have to wonder what difference that would make. And that is surely the most damning indictment on Solskjaer as he approaches three years in charge.