• Matthew Whiley

Manchester United Are In A Mess. What Next?

I remember once, back when I could stomach watching Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice on BBC1, reading an article about the supposed inside information on how they selected the candidates.


They weren’t after the best, or the brightest, or even the most business-savvy. No, apparently, the producers of the show picked the contenders on the basis of them being good enough to not look totally out of their depth, but bad enough that the viewers at home would believe they could do a better job.


Why on earth is this important now, you ask? I did, after all, stop watching the programme several years ago.


Well, I bring it to your attention because I am now utterly convinced that Ed Woodward and the Manchester United board employ precisely the same principle for picking their first-team manager. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, finally freed from his waking nightmare of seeing his side be ripped apart week after week – physically by opposition teams and then metaphorically by pundits in the days immediately following a match – was the latest example of a man who was, ultimately, just not the right fit.


Solskjær wasn’t good enough, yes, but we’ve known for years that the rot at Old Trafford runs far deeper than who happens to be in the technical area. The imminent departure of Woodward in six weeks’ time is a chink of light for United fans – just as long as they can prise away Edwin van der Sar from Ajax to replace him – but this is a mess that will take a while yet to repair.


My Premier League sympathies are certainly not in Manchester; if you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll be well aware that they are in fact located 33 miles further west along the East Lancs Road where another set of Reds can be found, so the fact that I feel sorry for the United faithful may come as a bit of a surprise. But I do, and it’s because we are seeing, right before our eyes, another of England’s great footballing institutions vandalised by incompetent ownership, to the detriment of the team.


I should point out that my feelings towards them aren’t that deep; I would quite happily see them go half a century without another trophy, but they should at least be able to be safe in the knowledge that their club is in the custody of a group that genuinely cares and won’t just treat them as a cash cow. Right now, they don’t have that security, and any amount of Jadon Sancho- and Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped expensive sticking plasters won’t heal the deep wounds inflicted on Manchester United by the Glazer family.


I could go on about this, but I’ll save that for another time. Instead, let’s focus on current events, which have seen Solskjær depart the club, Michael Carrick installed as interim-interim, and the club set about hunting for a genuine interim boss to fill the role until the end of the season. In a pretty damning indictment of the situation that one of the most famous football clubs on earth find themselves in, who actually takes the job is anyone’s guess. Plenty of names have been mentioned for the permanent job, but we await, with bated breath, an announcement on who will fill in for the remainder of this campaign.


I like to imagine the job advert, most likely being posted by Woodward on Gumtree as we speak, including the caveat that ‘the faint-hearted need not apply’. Whoever does step into Solskjær’s shoes has a mammoth task facing them to right the good ship Manchester United before thoughts can even begin to turn to onward progress. Let’s, then, take a look at just what needs to happen in that regard.


Defence

Any football fan worth their salt doesn’t need me to point out that the majority of United’s problems lie in defence; that’s common knowledge. Their starting back four at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon cost a combined £190 million, yet in the 69 minutes they played together before captain Harry Maguire was sent off for a second bookable offence, they conceded 13 shots, of which four were on target, and two goals.


David de Gea summed it up rather succinctly in his post-match interview: “We don’t know how to defend properly.” Yes, he really said those exact words, and the worst thing? He’s right. The Red Devils are weak and shaky at the back, and have been for a while. They have conceded 21 goals in their last eight games, with the nadir coming in their 5-0 mauling at the hands of Liverpool just over four weeks ago, where they were cut open with ease. Their biggest rivals were handed the opportunity to do so, but they made productive use of through balls, opening up cavernous spaces in the United back line to use the pace of Mo Salah in behind, and it was all too easy for the Egyptian as he netted a hat-trick.


The problems do extend further forward, in that United do not have a competent defensive midfielder (or perhaps they do? More on that later) to marshal the area in front of the back line, which leads to a centre back – often against Liverpool, this was Harry Maguire – being dragged out of position as they attempt to fill in, and in turn leaves them looking more exposed than ever.


Raphaël Varane was a good investment, and has looked impressive, putting in more tackles per game than either Victor Lindelöf or Maguire and making more clearances per game than any other United player at all, but injuries have limited him to just eight starts so far this season. In his absence, Maguire and Lindelöf have been entirely unconvincing, underlined by the fact that Bruno Fernandes, an attacking midfielder, has put in more tackles per game than either of them. The same is true of Aaron Wan-Bissaka for interceptions.


The new man needs to start at the back. Make United hard to play against, because at the moment they are far too easy. Now, it is certainly the case that the squad mentality may well experience an uptick with the change of manager. Solskjær had, however much he made noises to the contrary, lost the full effort of the dressing room, and so it’s easy to imagine a fresh face gives the players a boost and sees them start to run faster, harder, and put more into their play.


However, that said, the squad suddenly becoming more aggressive without any refinement around the edges would scarcely be a good thing either. While a bit of extra energy would certainly solve their unwillingness to go in for duels in the air – something that was again on display at Watford - they need to cut out their ability to be architects of their own downfall. With that in mind, it is far more important that the new manager can exert a calming influence to restore their self-belief, and stop them appearing under so much pressure.


Indeed, the latest glaring example of the unforced errors they keep making was, naturally, at Vicarage Road on Saturday when Bruno, once the finest player by some distance at Old Trafford, bizarrely attempted to hit a throw-in back towards his own box. Under no pressure at all, he shanked it straight to Hornets forward Joshua King, who was felled by Scott McTominay for a penalty inside the first quarter of an hour. Ismaila Sarr’s spot-kick was, ultimately, saved by de Gea, but the damaging signs were already there for all to see.


This is where United really missed out by failing to snap up Antonio Conte when they had the chance. As hard as it might be to see now, the defensive talent does exist within the squad, and a man who can encourage the back line, and the midfield, to be patient and calm would be worth his weight in gold. Stop giving away the silly fouls. Stop putting each other under pressure. Ensure that the back four move in sync with one another and don’t get dragged off by a team that tries to confront them.


That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any pressing or a higher defensive line when it’s necessary, but again we return to the idea of sorting out the basics first before looking ahead. Cut out the errors, and then we can start talking about taking the fight to opponents again.


Attack

Aside from his note that United don’t know how to defend, De Gea delivered another piece of stinging criticism after the humiliation at Vicarage Road: “We don’t know what to do with the ball.” So they’re unsure what to do when they don’t have the ball, and they’re also unsure what to do when they do have it. Simple! Inspiring!


All the way up the pitch, if each player trusts the man behind him, he is more prepared to play with intent. As well as playing for the manager, the team need to play for each other too. None of that is happening, and when the players clearly don’t trust one another, the structure of any team disintegrates, leading to the empty shell we see on display now.


It’s important to point out that the issue here is not with the goal-scoring; of all the harsh words being targeted at the Red Devils from very many directions, their actual strike force is not as deeply worrying as their defensive capabilities. We already know how many times they have conceded in their past eight games, yet their attacking return of 12 goals in the same number of fixtures - while perhaps not screaming free-flowing - is hardly diabolically difficult to watch.


The issue at hand is the movement of the ball, and how they get into those positions. It’s entirely pointless to attempt to play a possession game based around short passes when your team contains zero members of the Premier League’s top 30 players for total passes per 90.


That said, bringing in a manager who likes to play free-flowing football right now would, in my eyes, not be suitable, because of the lack of confidence United have on the ball. Obviously I’m not advocating for Tony Pulis to slip into the Old Trafford hot seat – although he has, famously, never been relegated as a manager, so perhaps they should consider it! – but in actual fact, a tactic where United try to play passes side-to-side has been shown to be fraught with risk.


They have seen the most success with direct through-balls, and indeed, despite losing the game, they did find success with a bit of route one in a defeat at Leicester last month, as Lindelöf found Marcus Rashford with a 40-yard ball over the middle. I should say I’m obviously not advocating for ugly, lump-it-forward football, but clearly something does need to change in order to increase the Red Devils’ competence on the ball.


Try spreading the play out wide, and go vertically rather than horizontally. The renaissance of Luke Shaw, who has always been supremely talented, has been a bright spot for United recently – although he was forced off under the concussion protocol against Watford, he shouldn’t be out for too long – and his willingness to foray forward down the left should be utilised.


If the midfield is lacking, and in particular the link between the midfield and defence is broken, try being more direct out of defence, by allowing Shaw to take it forward and link up with the attacking midfielders himself. The cover photo for this post was taken in the dying moments of United’s 5-1 thrashing of Leeds on the opening day of this season; a game in which they did utilise the wide areas to great effect, as Paul Pogba took a spot on the left wing, and contributed four assists. It likely won’t have been enough to satisfy Graeme Souness, but the point still stands.


The talent is there. Make sure it is brought out and used to maximum effect. Some of the players clearly stopped playing for Solskjær, so notwithstanding his legendary status, a fresh face is, right now, just what the club needs. As long as whoever it is can control the big name personalities – a final point to make is that Cristiano Ronaldo needs to learn he’s no bigger than the team and that he must fit into it, rather than it adapting its shape and tactics in order to fit around him – and implement a coaching philosophy that is clear, calm, and comforting, a blueprint can start to be built that allows a permanent manager to enter at the end of the season with a handy springboard to success.


Sir Alex Ferguson built a dynasty at Old Trafford based on free-flowing, attacking football, and that style became as associated with United as fish has with chips, as Sherlock Holmes has with Dr Watson. The move towards a defensive style first under Louis van Gaal and then under Jose Mourinho frustrated fans and ultimately cost both managers their jobs. It might certainly seem that some of my proposed ideas and principles, with a defensive core and perhaps more than a smattering of supposedly less attractive football, are distinctly ‘un-Manchester United’, but you know what else is distinctly ‘un-Manchester United’?


Losing 4-1 to a promoted club.


The board now have a decision to make, with the long-term in mind. All United fans can do now is hope, perhaps against the odds, that they don’t keep making the same mistakes.


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Signing off,

Matthew

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