Is there a more inconsistent top side in world football at the moment than Manchester United?
For starters, the squad they boast is ridiculous. That they can call on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial all at once. It is, in many ways, FIFA Ultimate Team come to life.
But the real world and FIFA are two very different things. And having a cavalcade of superstars on your books is not a title-winning team. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is now finding it out the hard way.
A 4–2 defeat at Leicester City was the latest indicator that United needed more than individual brilliance to win the league. They have match-winners in abundance but need a cohesive strategy to extract the best out of the team.
Solskjaer admitted after the game, “We need to look at the whole set-up and balance of the team and maybe something has to give.”
Indeed, the balance of the team has been an issue for a long time. And it is one that has become even more exposed since the end of the summer transfer window.
Recruitment issues coming back to haunt the side
In the summer transfer window, there were three clear areas of improvement for Manchester United. A new centre-back, right-winger and defensive midfielder were the priorities.
They signed Raphael Varane from Real Madrid to fill the defensive hole. And they finally got Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund a year after he had gone missing. But the lack of a new defensive midfielder seemed jarring.
In fact, one of the reasons United look so different is their midfield options. Against Leicester, Solskjaer chose to start alongside Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba as the midfield duo. Why he did this is anyone’s guess.
Pogba has always struggled in the midfield two, while Matic lacks the mobility to cover for him. Given United’s lack of cohesion, it is doubtful that even a mobile midfield partner would have minimized the damage.
As a result, Leicester could easily play through United’s midfield. To make matters worse, the defense settled into low blocks. This gave Leicester’s attackers plenty of room to escape.
At least as far as the output is concerned, the attack is less of a problem. Mason Greenwood scored a beautiful goal and Marcus Rashford scored on his return.
But United’s lack of cohesion was also evident in the way they attacked. The lack of suppressing was noticeable when out of possession. As expected, the odd attempt to suppress Leicester’s back-line did little.
And while the lack of pressure can be put down to tactical mismanagement, it’s also down to recruiting. The biggest buy of the summer – Cristiano Ronaldo – led the line. But he doesn’t press actively.
Yet his lack of defensive output shouldn’t shock anyone who’s seen him play. Which brings us to the next issue at hand: strategy.
Non-existent gameplan is hurting Manchester United
The fact that United started the season without a coherent Plan A is no shocker. The fact that they still don’t have one, though, most certainly is.
At the start of the season, United played in what was essentially a 4–3–3, with Pogba starting at left back and drifting inside. This allowed Ronaldo to stay further forward, with attackers moving to either side of him when he was out of possession.
It was a system that worked for a while – Pogba was making assists for fun and Ronaldo was also scoring. However, issues arose when United were asked to defend in unison.
Solskjaer has spoken of wanting to press high, but that is not happening under Ronaldo. Therefore, the plan should be to make one or both of the other attackers work a little harder.
That’s what Sir Alex Ferguson did during Ronaldo’s first spell at the club. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Park Ji-sung covered the ground in an attempt to cover Ronaldo.
However, this is not happening now. This leaves United’s midfield porous and the backline horribly exposed. Their lack of coherence when defending is evident in how many goals they concede on the break.
Typically, teams will strike back at a time when organization is at an all-time low. However, after equalizing against Leicester, Manchester United conceded a goal straight from kick-off. More than a matter of players switching off, it speaks to a lack of tactical drilling.
The best teams in the world have players who know their roles in both attack and defence. United’s players have free reign to attack and seemingly no instructions on how to defend. It’s hardly an ideal combination.
Can the decline of form be reversed?
Given United’s upcoming schedule, it is imperative that they start playing more like a team and less like a Galactico-style team.
They will definitely win from Atalanta in the Champions League. They will then face Liverpool at home and Tottenham Hotspur away before traveling to Bergamo to face Atalanta again.
Next comes their biggest litmus test – a home game against Manchester City, their local rivals and defending champions.
It’s not an easy fixture list by any means – even for Solskjaer, whose job is in no danger at this point despite his up and down recent results.
However, the time for excuses is over. In the past such dips were put down to the team being in transition, or needing more investment.
Solksjaer has a team that must compete for respect. Failure to do so could be the end of even one whose credit in the cosmic bank seems limitless.