Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes Manchester United back to the scene of his greatest win, 595 days since the comeback which effectively earned him a permanent contract. In that time, Solskjaer has addressed some of United’s many flaws. But others persist…
Pogba was one of the factors in Solskjaer getting the permanent gig. After barely phoning it in for Jose Mourinho, United’s record signing was a player reborn as soon as Solskjaer arrived.
But it was, of course, another false dawn. Once Solskjaer was appointed full-time and Pogba had made his point to Mourinho, the France star regressed once more to becoming rather more of a liability.
Since that victory over PSG which Pogba missed for picking up two daft yellow cards in the first leg – the second of which made you wonder if he’d gone looking for it – the midfielder has chucked in three goals (two from the penalty spot) and four assists. That means Pogba has been involved in a goal for every 422 minutes he has been on the pitch for United.
Yes, he missed much of last season through injury, but he remains a dilemma for Solskjaer and one which is edging no closer to a resolution, especially while him and his agent keep talking about dream moves to Real Madrid.
Ander Herrera full of praise for former #MUFC team-mate Paul Pogba. "I think he's got everything – there's no one like him… he's got it all," the PSG midfielder said. "He's got the talent to be one of the best"
— Simon Peach (@SimonPeach) October 19, 2020
On paper, Solskjaer could point to a big improvement in United’s defending last season. They went from having the 10th best defensive record in 2018/19 to the third best in his first full season in charge.
The arrival of Harry Maguire was certainly no coincidence and though he settled a very shaky defence, observers might suggest that United’s defensive record was better than their actual defending.
Maguire’s woes this season illustrate that plenty of work still needs to be done on the back four. The captain has been poor, but those around him have been worse. Neither Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly have offered a hint of competence so far this season, with Bailly missing again tonight because he simply cannot stay fit.
So having chosen not to look for a centre-back after signing three in the previous four summers, Solskjaer now must demonstrate that he can organise and tighten up a defence which has yet to keep a clean sheet and conceded 12 goals in their opening four matches. It doesn’t help that they don’t get sufficient protection…
A midfield screen
Pogba and United’s defensive concerns are part of a wider problem with United’s midfield.
Bruno Fernandes is doing incredible things further forward, which also restricts Pogba to a deeper role that his physical attributes are perfectly tailored towards but his mentality is not.
So with Pogba pretending to screen on one side, Nemanja Matic is left to do the job almost on his own. When Solskjaer was appointed, it seemed that Matic was finished. It appeared that his legs had gone and while he has had something of a renaissance over the last year, Solskjaer still lacks mobility in front of his defence, which is being exposed too often.
Fred and Scott McTominay are fleeting presences in the engine room, but neither have really pushed on to claim a midfield position of their own, and while United are reluctant to strengthen in the transfer market, it is left to Solskjaer to find ways to better protect his back four.
The centre-forward issue
Romelu Lukaku scored twice in Paris but it seems Solskjaer’s mind was already made up that Belgium’s record goalscorer did not fit the template for how the manager wanted his central striker to operate.
You can argue whether that was the right call or not but at least Solskjaer showed some decisiveness over Lukaku. The problem is, United haven’t found anyone better to do the job.
The theory was that Marcus Rashford would step into the middle, but the England attacker is far happier coming off the left side. Anthony Martial has been entrusted with Solskjaer’s faith and he’s made a reasonable fist of things – at least prior to the start of this season – with 17 Premier League goals last campaign. But Paul Scholes echoed the thoughts of many when he suggested that Martial had conned United fans last term into thinking he could be the club’s long-term centre-forward.
It is not Solskjaer’s fault that United insist on shopping in the bargain bin for freebies and loans when it comes to centre-forwards, though it will be interesting to see how Edinson Cavani fares, and how Martial responds to that challenge. But more than a year and a half into his reign, the former centre-forward is yet to solve his side’s centre-forward problems.
A lack of consistency
“Our players do have quality. They do have a chance. We just need consistency.”
That was Solskjaer speaking at the start of his first pre-season in charge of United. Prior to that, the Red Devils lurched hopelessly between scintillating and sh*te. In the Premier League, between his arrival and the end of the 2018/19 season, they didn’t lose for 12 games then won only two of their last nine.
The search for consistency yielded no results in the season prior to the Covid shutdown. In the Premier League they never managed more than two wins in succession before the season was suspended and they enjoyed consecutive victories only three times.
After the restart, it seemed like Solskjaer had cracked it, largely thanks to Fernandes, with whom United never lost in the league. The Red Devils did not lose any of their last 14 to take third spot.
This season, however, is a different story again. L, W, L, W is the story of their opening four games, and they were extremely fortunate to get that first W. The win over Newcastle on Saturday needs to be the start of another positive run, especially with the opponents United have coming up. Either way, Solskjaer’s long-term job prospects are sure to veer again in the coming weeks and that cannot help a drive for consistency.