Having conceded three goals at home to Crystal Palace in their opening Premier League game of the season, the Manchester United defence looked as if it needed an overhaul.
Against Luton Town in midweek, Dean Henderson was brought in for goalkeeper David de Gea and Eric Bailly was brought in for Victor Lindelof and no goals were conceded. However, come Saturday, De Gea was back in goal and the Lindelof – Maguire centre-back partnership was restored.
The result: two goals conceded, three good penalty shouts against, the woodwork hit five times and some woeful finishing from Trossard and March that spared United’s blushes and allowed them to escape with a victory.
When asked in the post-match press conference whether he felt he needs a new centre-back in this transfer window, however, manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was defiant.
‘We’ve got many defenders here,’ he said.
‘For me, we’ve got enough good centre-backs here at the moment.’
On BT Sport after the game, the boss also singled out De Gea for praise, despite being beaten seven times (if you count the woodwork), saying ‘today, we showed character … David’s making an important save from Trossard … There were some pluses as well.’
You would be forgiven for wondering what Solskjaer is smoking if these are really his opinions on his defence.
The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards thinks that the manager is being ‘pragmatic’ in his comments and is fully aware that the ‘defence remains a shambles.’
‘When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offered his view that he does not see the need for any new defenders at Manchester United it was about as reassuring as a colour blind train driver insisting he can always tell the difference between red and green signals,’ the reporter said after the game.
‘He could hardly say: “I’m really worried because my defence is not good enough, I can’t believe we have not improved and unless we bring in another top quality centre-back we are never going to win the big prizes…”
‘Well he could, possibly he should, but that is not his style.
‘Whether he is pushing harder behind the scenes in a source of conjecture.
‘There are suggestions United’s manager has not been allowed to sign another centre-back because of the money set aside to sign Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, even though he wanted one.’
And whilst it is clearly true that signing a player of the calibre of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly or Red Bull Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano would undoubtedly improve the defence considerably, the fact remains that the current personnel are individually far, far better than they are showing on the pitch.
Most people would agree that Harry Maguire was not worth the £85 million that United paid for him, but his performances for Leicester and England were vastly superior to those he has produced for United. If he had played like this for Leicester, he would have ended up playing for Scunthorpe United rather than Manchester United.
And anyone who watched Victor Lindelof play for his previous side, Benfica, will also tell you that the player was one of the classiest young centre-backs to have passed through the Portuguese capital – many would say considerably better than Ruben Dias, who is now poised to sign for United’s neighbours, Manchester City, to much fanfare.
Meanwhile, David de Gea is, or was, capable of being the world’s best goalkeeper. His understudy, Dean Henderson was one of the best keepers in the Premier League last season, earning him a call-up to the England squad.
So, the question is, why is the defence performing so badly?
If it is simply a case that the chemistry is wrong between them, then Solskjaer needs to stop picking the same trio time and time again, hoping for a different outcome, like Homer Simpson on the telegraph pole electrocuting himself over and over again trying to get his beer can off the electricity cable.
If Eric Bailly’s fitness is a concern, then pick 18-year-old Teden Mengi, or Chris Smalling, or put Tim Fosu-Mensah in there. Are they world class? No. But should they need to be world class just to perform adequately in the Premier League? No.
Is the captaincy weighing too heavily on Maguire’s shoulder’s? Then take it off him. Bruno Fernandes is a ready replacement who is proven to thrive on the responsibility.
Do the centre-backs need a more vocal keeper behind them to marshal them and improve communication? Then play Henderson. Or even Sergio Romero, who kept as many clean sheets for United in his 17 games last season – 13, as De Gea did in his 38 Premier League outings. Why the blind loyalty to De Gea? How long will the Norwegian keep trying for that beer can?
The fact is that whilst at first glance it seems shocking and disappointing to hear Solskjaer saying ‘we’ve got enough good centre-backs’, in a sense, he is right. But in saying so, he is also admitting that he himself and his defensive coaches are failing miserably to use the wealth of Premier League standard defenders at his disposal correctly and to get them playing to the standard of which they are capable.
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