Much has been said about Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s ability to manage Manchester United and another defeat on the road, this time at Bournemouth, has once again called into question the Norwegian’s credentials for managing the club. But the fact is that we do not yet know whether or not he is a strong enough tactician, man manager or team builder, because one issue, and one issue alone, has dictated his tenure so far – and that is the players’ fitness.
Let’s go back to Solskjaer’s first match as Manchester United manager, against Cardiff City in January 2019.
In an injury-ravaged season for the first team, which recorded a staggering 61 injuries, Solskjaer had the luxury of nearly all of the squad being available for the Cardiff fixture, and was able to recall the fresh and hungry Pogba, Martial and Luke Shaw to the side. The unbeaten run of 12 games that then followed coincided with a low number of injuries, especially to key players. But Solskjaer’s preferred eleven started to tire, injuries started to build again and in Solskjaer’s first defeat as United manager, the 2-0 loss to Arsenal on 5th March, there were ten United players injured: Valencia, Sanchez, Darmian, Martial, Herrera, Matic, Mata, Jones, Bailly and Lingard. As the results continued to decline and the season drew to a close, the players’ fitness levels were clearly a huge issue. With a place in the top four within their grasp, the team tottered and fell like a marathon runner just metres before the finish line.
The fitness issues were not lost on Solskjaer, who reportedly doubled training during pre-season in order to improve stamina and resilience. Explaining those extra sessions, Solskjaer said: “It is not a case of breaking them down, it is not about proving a point, they are not fit enough…When the league starts, everyone should be as fit as they possibly could be from the starting point…When I came in, I was criticised for playing the same team too often and for being too hard on them…That we asked them to run more and we ended up with a few injuries, so maybe I could have, should have, rotated.”
And so began the 2019/20 season, almost injury free, with an impressive 4-0 victory over Chelsea. Solskjaer made two subs after 74 and 86 minutes. In the next game, he made one change and made two subs on 81 and 89 minutes. In the third game, he again made one change and brought the subs on at 56 and 85 minutes. Could Solskjaer have, should Solskjaer have rotated? Had he overtrained the squad? Was the high press to exhausting? Then the injuries started to come again. By the end of August, Shaw and Martial were both injured, with Pogba and Lingard joining them after the next game. Jones, Wan-Bissaka and Matic then followed.
By the time United took to the pitch to play Liverpool on 20 October, fans were expecting the worst but a change in formation to 3-5-2 helped United secure an unlikely point. Solskjaer was hailed for his tactical decision but he himself claimed it was forced upon him by the injury and fitness situation. He said: “I think injuries have made us get into the position where the performances didn’t come and we had fit centre-backs, good centre-backs and quality centre-backs… It just made it easier to go to a back three against Liverpool and again in Serbia.”
The good run that followed crashed and burned at Dean Court on Saturday, as a tired and unfit-looking side playing their 5th game in two weeks lost lamely to Bournemouth. Once again, despite fitness worries for Maguire, Lindelof and Rashford, Solskjaer fielded a largely unchanged side and did not make any substitutions until the 68th minute, when he brought on Lingard for Pereira. Once again, you hear Solskjaer’s own words from pre-season echoing around the stadium – “so maybe I could have, should have rotated.”
One of the frustrating issues about United’s ongoing fitness and injury woes – which remains unresolved for many years – is not just the number of injuries sustained, but the length of time it seems to take players to recover. What is reported as a ‘knock’ ends up being ‘months out’. Even something that should be simple to predict takes forever to resolve. Luke Shaw, for example, sustained a hamstring injury on 24 August and was expected to be out for five weeks, but we are now at ten and a half weeks and counting. And what of Nemanja Matic’s mysterious ‘foot injury’ that turned from ‘he needs to rest it for a few days’ to week after week of absence? This seems par for the course at Old Trafford and we have become used to it over recent years. But can anybody explain why? When was the last time a Manchester United player came back earlier from injury than expected?
Whether or not bad luck, bad medical/physio treatment or bad training methods are contributing to the ongoing injury crisis, it is clear that Solskjaer does need to rotate more. We’ve had great performances from the likes of Garner and Greenwood and yet they hardly get a kick. A lot is being asked of Rashford and James in terms of game time, especially given the number of fouls that they attract – and we cannot afford to lose them. The team were tired against Bournemouth, that much is clear. More rotation is needed in the starting line-up but the manager also needs to up his in-game rotation and have more faith in his substitutes around the hour mark. Remember, Olé: “Maybe I could have, should have rotated.”