Manchester United Have the Talent on the Pitch, but Not on the Sideline

© AFP 2022 / OLI SCARFFManchester United's Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (L) shakes hands with Manchester United's Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo as he comes off the substitutes bench during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on October 2, 2021.
Manchester United's Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (L) shakes hands with Manchester United's Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo as he comes off the substitutes bench  during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on October 2, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 22.10.2021
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has come under fire for a string of poor performances. With a showdown against Liverpool looming and a string of marquee contests, can Solksjaer right the ship in time to make a title charge?
It is often forgotten, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was never supposed to be the Manchester United manager. At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the club was helmed by Jose Mourinho and coming off a second-place finish in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Solskjaer was in charge at Molde after a disastrous stint at Cardiff City in 2014.
United got off to a poor start to the season which saw Jose Mourinho sacked in December. The club brought in Solskjaer as a caretaker to see out the 2018-19 season in hopes that an elite manager would become available. However, the team instantly responded to their new manager, winning 14 of his first 19 matches, and United decided that Solskjaer was worthy of a three-year contract.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the 6-1 defeat to Spurs - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.09.2021
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Manchester United has not been poor under Solskjaer, but they have never looked like a true title contender. For a club that set a new standard for domestic dominance in the 90s and early 2000s, simply being good is not enough.
Since Solskjaer took the helm, United has spent heavily to build a team that should be challenging for domestic and European titles. The club has spent €541.3 million since 2018, the second-most in the Premier League over the span, and that their squad is valued as the third-most valuable squad in the world by Transfermarkt. The investments on the pitch have been title-worthy. Which raises the question, why hasn’t Solskjaer been able to mount any serious title charge?
Even when things were going well at United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer never showed the tactical inventiveness to truly get the best out of his teams. His sides have routinely been bailed out by individual brilliance. Solskjaer deserves credit for keeping spirits high, pushing the right buttons, and trying to cram the most talent on the pitch as possible, but all the elite teams in Europe have managers who have installed cohesive attacking systems that can break down any defense.
This season has shown the limitations that a Solskjaer-led team has. In the Premier League, United has scored 16 goals against 10 allowed from eight matches. However, nine of their goals came from two matches against Leeds and Newcastle who have allowed the most and third-most goals in the league. Outside of their matches against bottom feeders, United have scored seven goals and allowed eight over six matches.
No side with Cristiano Ronaldo, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Edison Cavani should struggle to unlock defenses. Solskjaer’s failure to install an effective attacking identity has cost his side points against sides that title challengers routinely beat.
United remains deadly on the break, and the passing creativity and range of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba have been there to bail out United time and time again, but relying on individual brilliance can only raise a side so far.
Their counter-attacking has served them well against stronger sides, but because they routinely have a massive talent advantage, they are rarely in a position to utilize it. Dropping back and forming a disciplined wall around the box is enough to give United’s attack fits. Winning a Premier League title is as much about picking up three points against the bottom half of the table as it is about taking three off the top.
Manchester United's Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (L) shakes hands with Manchester United's Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo as he comes off the substitutes bench  during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on October 2, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 19.10.2021
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The surest way to see if a team has an attacking identity is to watch how their midfielders and attackers link up. Whenever one of United’s players receives the ball there is a moment where they have to look up, scan the field, and then pick a pass. In the half-second this takes, gaps in defenses disappear and advantages are lost. The best teams in the world can practically close their eyes and find an open man. After all this time, if Solskjaer hasn’t been able to install this type of prescient understanding amongst his squad, it remains unlikely he ever will.
United’s paltry +6 goal differential in the Premier League further obscures a side that is not living up to expectations. Their expected goal differential of +1.1 is eighth in the league and is a harbinger of poor results to come. Expected goals is not a descriptive stat, it is a predictive stat. United’s results have outstripped their performances, something that usually catches up to a side, even one as talented as Untied. Cristiano Ronaldo might be able to secure United a few goals they don’t deserve, but those goals should be leading to a title charge, not a fight to make the top-four.
The reality is, United’s results this season have outstripped their performances and their results haven’t been much to write home about. Faced with a brutal slate of games, Solskjaer’s inadequacies as a manager could doom United’s season before Boxing Day.
Their next six Premier League matches are against Liverpool (2nd), Tottenham (5th), Manchester City (3rd), Watford (16th), Chelsea (1st), and Arsenal (9th). Outside of Watford, there are no easy points to pick up. With the way that United has played this season, expecting them to pick up nine points from a possible of 18, would represent a best-case scenario. Liverpool, Chelsea, and City won’t relent, and if United are on 23 points after 14 matches, their title chances are all but over.
In the Champions League, his side still has to travel to Atalanta and Villarreal. While United won both of their home fixtures, they required comebacks and late goals to secure three points. Atalanta and Villarreal are both strong sides, but their collection of talent pales in comparison to United’s. United’s group should have been a cakewalk, but after three matches, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.
Every time Solskjaer’s job has been in question, he has been able to string together a run of results to save his job. However, the expectations this season are different. United has ambitions and the squad to challenge for the Premier League title and make a deep Champions League run.
Solskjaer isn’t the manager to lead United back atop English and World football. He lacks the tactical astuteness to elevate his players and instead they elevate him. The best clubs in the world are helmed by managers that can raise the abilities of their preposterously talented squads. United built a title worthy squad, it’s about time they get a title-worthy manager to unlock it.
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