It’s probably foolhardy to predict a comfortable win for Manchester United at Newcastle today after such a poor start to the season, but changes that may be forced on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should guide him to a realisation that he couldn’t quite get to on his own.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes.
Solskjaer has doggedly stuck to a 4-2-3-1 with Harry Maguire at the heart of the defence and Anthony Martial spearheading the attack – a formation that worked well immediately after lockdown, when the Red Devils went on an unbeaten run of eight matches, but which has failed to deliver consistently since.
But with Martial a definite absentee due to suspension and Maguire a doubt due to a ‘knock’ – perhaps a Solskjaer-ism for ‘dropped until he sorts his head out’ – the manager will be forced to rethink the spine of his Premier League side and possibly the shape of it as well.
In particular, Maguire’s absence will be transformative. The fact is that although commanding in the air and (to be generous) calm under pressure, Maguire is slow. That is not about his current form, confidence or lack thereof – he is just simply slow. United knew that when they spent £80 million on him, but they thought that those other assets, plus his English-ness, outweighed that negative.
Perhaps a couple of years ago, that would have been true. But football is constantly evolving and at the cutting edge of modern Premier League football there are fluid and fast forward lines that demand pace and acceleration from those that defend against them.
Almost completely gone is the traditional centre-forward. Maybe not in Italy, where Romelu Lukaku is tearing it up, but in the Premier League, even Harry Kane has learned to adapt to a new and much more mobile role.
If the traditional centre-forward is redundant, then perhaps the traditional centre-back is likewise redundant.
Solskjaer may find that in the likes of a partnership comprising two of Bailly, Lindelof, Tuanzebe or even Mengi tomorrow, he will have the extra mobility he needs against the likes of Joelinton and Wilson and he might also find that mobility will also work well against most other sides in the league.
Martial’s absence, meanwhile, could force a formation change with a diamond midfield seeming like a good choice, despite doubts over Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s ability to get forward and put in the crosses needed for a narrow diamond to really work effectively. It will allow Pogba to move forward-left, where he is far more comfortable than in the quarterback-style role he has been occupying to accommodate Bruno Fernandes in the hole in the 4-2-3-1. It will also allow Donny van de Beek to start and encourage both Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood to spend more time in the box, which is where they are both at their most dangerous.
Solskjaer desperately needs to add some new formations to the team’s repertoire to keep opponents guessing. Arguably, one of the reasons that his sides go on winning streaks and losing streaks with equal regularity is that his tactics quickly become predictable and he does not have the confidence (or the team does not have the experience, or both) to switch things up when needed.
An enforced change to the diamond should therefore benefit the side immensely going forward as it will be the first step in adding an extra string to their bow.
There may of course be teething problems and there is no great logical reason to be confident that the changes will transform into successful results straight away. But there is every reason to be confident that a new-look United will take the field at St James Park this evening and show us a glimpse of the future for Solskjaer’s men.
This summer’s transfer window has been one of the strangest in living memory. So cast your mind back to less stressful days and test your knowledge of past United arrivals and departures in our quiz below.