Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must show creativity and flexibility in player positions if he is to make the most of his 2021/22 squad and keep them happy.
As has been documented extensively throughout the media, the arrival this summer of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo has left the United boss with an embarrassment of riches in defence and, particularly, attack, whilst the defensive midfield area looks fragile and exposed.
There are question marks over how the Norwegian will be able to avoid egos and frustrations getting in the way of squad harmony as the season progresses. With a minimum of four defenders and two defensive or semi-defensive central midfielders, when the whole squad is fit, Solskjaer will be left having to choose four from Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo in the attacking positions.
This is not even to mention the need to give game time to academy graduates such as Hannibal, Anthony Elanga and Shola Shoretire, for example.
The centre-back picture is almost as complicated. Despite Axel Tuanzebe’s loan move to Aston Villa, there are six players vying for two spots, with Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane the likely incumbents and Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Teden Mengi all looking for minutes.
Meanwhile in that holding or semi-holding midfield area, there are just three players – Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic, competing for two places.
There has been much talk of Solskjaer switching to a 4-3-3 formation this season but even if he does, one of the midfield three should be defensive and another at least capable of helping out defensively.
Solskjaer has tried to employ Paul Pogba in a deeper role on several occasions but, by and large, it has not worked. Pogba is capable of stunning quarterback-style passes from deep but his creativity is generally wasted further back and breaking up play, protecting the defence and tackling are not the first things you associate with the World Cup winner.
Particularly if Ronaldo is leading the line, who as reported here yesterday is by nature a luxury player who does not tend to pitch in defensively, Solskjaer needs to find a solution other than ‘McFred’ – the double pivot of Fred and McTominay.
The question is, who could be redeployed into defensive and/or central midfield? In addition to the usual suspects, there are in fact four United stars with plenty of experience in the role:
The Peoples Person reported yesterday that fans on social media have been calling for Lindelof to be used as a defensive midfielder, and it is a position in which he has experience – albeit a long time ago. Lindelof played 22 games at DM for Benfica’s B side between 2013 and 2015 and captained Sweden once at under 19 level in the role.
Donny van de Beek
The Dutchman is the most obvious candidate for a deeper role and in fact, despite Solskjaer’s insistence that he should be played higher up the pitch, he has spent more time as a CM or DM in his career.
Solskjaer himself has played him 14 times in CM and once in DM, with the Reds winning four of the five games in which he played the whole 90 minutes.
Van de Beek played 14 times as a DM for Ajax and 90 times as a CM. By contrast, he only played as an attacking midfielder on 68 occasions.
Many people forget that United’s talisman has spent a large part of his career in a central midfield role. He played there regularly during his time at Udinese and in fact, 30 of his 137 games for Sporting were in that position. It did little to blunt his goal creation ability, scoring 11 goals and providing 8 assists from the middle of the park.
It almost seems impossible to imagine Bruno playing behind, say, Paul Pogba or Jesse Lingard or in a flat midfield behind twin strikers in a 4-4-2, but history tells us he is more than capable of doing so very effectively.
A bit of a wild card option to say the least, but somebody who, in the past, acquitted himself well in a DM role is Phil Jones. Jones played 30 times for United in the position and seven for Blackburn. His 30 appearances in the role came under Sir Alex Ferguson between 2011 and 2013 and David Moyes in 2013/14.
Admittedly, none of the above players would be at their very best in the role, but it may be necessary for Solskjaer to think outside the box and rotate more using this sort of creative approach. Squad rotation has not been the boss’s forte in his tenure so far and it is something he must address urgently this season to make the best use of the personnel at his disposal.