In the wake of the humbling reality check of a 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, most of the media – and social media – attention is focussed on Victor Lindelof’s “error” that led to Palace’s first goal, Dan James’ “diving” and another missed penalty from Pogford. But for me, there are two much bigger problems that Olé Gunnar Solskjaer has to deal with and which, if not resolved, could be disastrous for Manchester United this season.
The first of these is the form of David De Gea. In July there were howls of criticism at my suggestion that, given De Gea’s form at the end of last season, the new 6-year contract offered to him, with a 50% pay increase that takes him from being the world’s highest-paid keeper to being by far the world’s highest-paid keeper, might be something of a gamble, to say the least. I was accused of sacrilege. “He’s the best keeper in the world”, “He’s been player of the year on how many occasions?”, “He deserves it after everything he’s done for this club”, “He’s the only world class player we’ve got and you’d let him leave?” But I stand by what I said.
Of course, Palace’s first goal was down to Lindelof, who was far too easily beaten in the aerial challenge leading to Ayew’s strike. But De Gea was also indecisive in dealing with the nod on. He backed off and left a space to his right that made Ayew’s job much easier than it should have been. Imagine Peter Schmeichel in the same situation – he would have charged out toward the player, made himself large and forced him out wide. De Gea did none of the above. He might as well have not been there.
Palace’s second goal was simply another glaring error from De Gea. Beaten at his near post again – or more correctly, fumbling a shot that went straight at him into the gap at his near post.
The fact is that De Gea has been offered a contract that is nearly double the next highest keeper’s contract in the world, he has been given the captaincy when Ashley Young is off the pitch, and Solskjaer stood by him at the end of last season when his mistakes cost United a place in the Champions League. You would think the player would have bitten Ed Woodward’s hand off, and yet he is still stalling on signing this contract. Is he still hoping that PSG or Real Madrid are going to make a move before the European transfer window closes? Is that the level of his loyalty to Manchester United?
I know I’m going to get more of those howls of protest, but if it were me, after Saturday’s performance, I’d take that deal back off the table and see how De Gea goes over the next two or three months. Because if he’s going to carry on this season as he finished off the last, then Manchester United have a big problem.
The other big problem for me, and this is a lot less controversial, is the fact that Jesse Lingard is simply not fit for purpose as Manchester United’s No.10. The lack of midfield signings in the Summer has forced Solskjaer to abandon the 4-3-3 formation, push Pogba back into a deeper role and revert to a 4-2-3-1. I know it’s no use crying over spilt milk, but it still beggars belief as to why United didn’t attempt to sign Sporting’s Bruno Fernandes, who in his last game on Sunday notched up more assists than Lingard did in the whole of last season (albeit against the Algarvian mid-table side Portimonense).
Rumour has it that United didn’t pursue the signing of Fernandes because he gives the ball away too often, but compare the stats as a whole:
|This Season||Last Season|
|Shots per Game||0||3.3||1.2||3.6|
|Key Passes per game||0.7||3.7||1.2||3.2|
|Dispossessed per game||2.0||2.3||0.7||1.8|
|Lost control per game||1.7||2.7||1.6||2.2|
Note also that Fernandes is playing as a No.8, where goals and assists are a less key part of the overall role than that of a No.10. If United had signed Fernandes, or any other halfway decent central midfielder in the Summer, Solskjaer would have had the option not just to play Pogba further forward, but also to revert to a 4-3-3 if the circumstances warranted.
But, as my mother used to say, if if’s and and’s were pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers. We don’t have Fernandes, and Lingard is not performing. So what is the solution? One option is to simply drop Jesse in favour of either Juan Mata or Andreas Pereira. In his day, Mata was one of the world’s greatest attacking midfielders, but his lack of pace does not make him ideally suited to Solskjaer’s style of play. Pereira has bags of talent and could certainly improve United’s set pieces, but he just doesn’t seem to quite be able to take that step up to the next level and could end up being another Lingard.
Another possible solution would be to change formation again, this time to 4-4-2, with two of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial playing as a strike partnership and the third reverting to the wings alongside Dan James.
A third option would be to push Pogba up into the cross-between-8-and-10 role that is arguably his best, and to put someone in behind him. The options United have there would be Matic, Fred or James Garner. For me, Matic would be a negative choice. His pre-season form was abysmal, and with Scott McTominay playing so well in the holding role, I think recalling him would be a backward step. So let’s see what either Fred or Garner can do. If Fred is given a run in the team, maybe he can produce the form he showed at Shakhtar. If Garner can make the step up and put in the Scholes-like performances he’s been producing for the U23’s, then age should be no barrier. Either player could make a huge difference to the team’s energy levels and dynamism.
There’s no reason why United shouldn’t get through to January and still be in touch with the top four, having qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League. A midfield addition of Fernandes’ ilk could then be brought in to provide another option and, well, Bob would be your uncle. But if Solskjaer persists with Lingard in the number 10 role, by the time January comes, it might all be too late.