A lazy, poorly motivated team putting in a terrible performance. A dreadful tactical decision in choosing a 3-5-2 formation that left Fred and Pereira playing 2 against 3 in midfield. The inexplicably naïve selection of Phil Jones. The inevitable outcome of failing to buy central midfielders in the summer to strengthen an already depleted squad. The wrong substitution in taking off focal point Anthony Martial when trying to protect the 3-2 lead. These are some of the Manchester United fans’ main discussion points as they are forced to conduct yet another postmortem after yet another poor performance in the Premier League.
All these are valid points, of course. But nonetheless, you have to ask yourself, why did Solskjaer revert to a 3-5-2 in the first place? If it was because he really doesn’t trust James Garner in midfield, then why not play Phil Jones as the holding midfielder – a role he’s played many times in the past? Or start Tuanzebe there? The only logical conclusion is that Solskjaer doesn’t fancy our back four much in games where we are going to be attacked – and probably with good reason.
Cast your mind back to a few weeks ago.
Even though results were not going our way, most United fans would agree that Wan Bissaka and Maguire had been great signings and that at least the defence was now “sorted”. We also witnessed the emergence of the talented Brandon Williams at left back, a fantastic understudy to the injured Luke Shaw. With Axel Tuanzebe also having shown great form before suffering a hip injury in the warm-up against Liverpool, United seemed finally to have a strong defence. Hell, even Rojo was playing well. The problem, it seemed, was creating chances and scoring goals.
Cue a major improvement in front of goal. In fact, United have scored 14 goals in the last 6 games, and 9 in the last 3. That is a very healthy return. Yet here we are, confused and bewildered, asking ourselves how the team can play so poorly for 70 minutes. We question the formation, tactics, selection and substitution and lament the injury crisis. But maybe the real issue here is the fragility of our defence.
Let’s look at the goals conceded against Sheffield United. OK, so the first was a little unfortunate as there was, in my view, a clear foul on Jones in the lead up. But let’s face it, we were hardly unlucky to be 1-0 down, as we would already have conceded at least one had it not been for a series of world class saves from de Gea. The second goal was, though, a clearer indication of our defensive frailty. Mousset strolled through a gaping hole in the heart of United’s defence, with Lindelof stranded way out of position halfway up the pitch. It was simply terrible defending.
I’m not making excuses for the rest of the team, but it’s hard to express yourself and retain your confidence when you are leaking goals like that at the back. Yet somehow, things clicked into place and United scored 3 in 7 minutes. But when United just had to protect that lead for 5 minutes or so, you just knew that the defence would wobble, and, sure enough the third goal came almost immediately.
Let’s be honest. In every game now we are seeing huge gaps appearing between Lindelof and Maguire. We look vulnerable in dealing with crosses. We are seeing great individual performances from Wan Bissaka and Williams, but the defence is not playing as a unit. And I would go so far as to say that yes, there could be more protection from midfield, but this defence is Manchester United’s biggest problem at the moment. Solskjaer perhaps recognises it as well, which is probably why he felt the need to bolster the back line with the inclusion of Jones, which sadly was the managerial equivalent of throwing water on a chip pan fire.
With Tuanzebe back fit and Eric Bailly not far away, we can start to talk about alternatives to the Maguire-Lindelof partnership, which is not working. Despite patches of excellent form which wooed us all into believing that maybe the Swede was a good signing after all, Victor-Victoria remains error-prone and ineffective in the air. What’s the point in having a centre back who can carry the ball out of defence if he doesn’t also get the basics right? Right now, he is just not looking fit for purpose. Maguire has not exactly been commanding either, but the jury will remain out until he is given an uninterrupted run with a steadier partner in a settled formation.
It’s ironic that whilst Jones, Maguire and Lindelof were falling apart at the seams yesterday, Chris Smalling was keeping a clean sheet, scoring a goal and getting two assists for Roma in Serie A. Now, I’ve never been a Smalling fan but you almost end up asking yourself whether United loaned out the wrong player.
What needs to happen now? Well, first, Solskjaer needs to abandon the three centre back experiment, except where it is tactically sound, as it was against Liverpool. But more importantly, we need to find the right partner for Maguire. I’d argue that if injury-proneness wasn’t a factor, Tuanzebe, Bailly and even Rojo should be ahead of Lindelof and Jones in the pecking order. If just one of those three manage to stay fit and play through a season, especially Tuanzebe, then perhaps United can finally form a solid base on which to build their game. Because, let’s face it, the wheels will keep coming off the bus until we have a good Axel.