Manchester United’s 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa yesterday has ended a miserable 11 days that have seen the team lose three out of four games.
Pressure is starting to mount on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again from many fans, journalists and pundits while others claim that the bad run is largely due to circumstances beyond his control.
It could be said that luck has not been on United’s side. They lost Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to injury during yesterday’s game; the normally impeccable Bruno Fernandes blazed a penalty over the bar; and Villa’s goal could, on another day, have been ruled out due to Ollie Watkins’ offside presence on the line, arguably obstructing David de Gea.
United have had 55 shots in the last two games without scoring, which again could be considered highly unusual and/or unfortunate.
These aren’t excuses, but they do not paint the whole picture. Maguire and Shaw have represented part of a defence that has only kept one clean sheet in all competitions this season. Early mistakes from both players yesterday could have led to an earlier Aston Villa goal than was the case.
Despite the arrival of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid and specialist set-piece coach Eric Ramsey over the summer, the defence remains vulnerable and the goal that did come yesterday was, again, from a dead ball situation.
In the pre-match press conference, Solskjaer bemoaned the fact that his side were being denied penalties this season. That may be so, but his side should not be relying on penalties to beat the likes of Young Boys in the Champions League and West Ham and Aston Villa at home domestically.
If United had 27 shots on Wednesday without scoring, it could be argued that they were shooting from too far out, or too frequently, or too desperately, when a cool head and a pass would be a better option. It is something that the manager and/or coaches would be expected to fix before the next game. But there were 28 shots without a goal in the next game. Clearly, the problem had not been addressed.
One result of the likes of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Diogo Dalot firing in all these shots from unlikely positions is that Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s best finisher, was starved of opportunities. He only took four of those 28 shots.
This has to go down to either tactical failure or in the team’s blatant disregarding of tactical instructions. In either case, the buck stops with the manager.
In article entitled ‘What’s going wrong for Manchester United’, The Athletic’s Laurie Whitwell says ‘Finding a balance, where players understand each other’s rhythm, is essential. That is down to Solskjaer. Something is very wrong when Ronaldo fails to register a single shot on target.’
Another problem that must be laid at the manager’s door is the lack of control in midfield. Despite excellent recent displays by the talented Donny van de Beek, Solskjaer has doggedly stuck with a lacklustre midfield partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred, but the pair do not seem able to control the tempo of the game and dominate the midfield.
Whitwell notes that ‘A sign of the game’s instability could be seen by Scott McTominay having 15 touches by half-time, with Douglas Luiz on 16 touches, among the lowest totals for all players. The midfield was often bypassed with long passes or work down the wings. United had 401 passes to Villa’s 266, at a success rate of 78 per cent to 70 per cent, but their tempo felt erratic.’
Linked to the ‘McFred’ midfield issue is that one of the world’s finest central midfielders, Paul Pogba, was again stuck out on the left wing to accommodate the duo, whilst one of the world’s brightest young specialist wingers, new signing Jadon Sancho, who should have been providing the crosses for Ronaldo, did not even make the starting XI.
The problems need to be addressed quickly, yet many fans doubt that they will be, given that they have now existed, to some degree, pretty much since Solskjaer took the reins nearly three years ago. Sometimes it seems that he simply is not learning from his mistakes.
United have a must-win home Champions League tie against Villareal on Wednesday. They could be without Maguire, Shaw and the suspended Aaron Wan-Bissaka and will be facing the team that beat them in last season’s Europa League final and who got an impressive point against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu yesterday.
Solskjaer tends to pull a rabbit out of the hat when he needs to the most and he very much needs to do so again on Wednesday, otherwise questions such as these will mount very quickly and the pressure could start to become unbearable.