Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under serious pressure after a dismal 2-0 defeat to rivals City at the weekend followed a 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool at Old Trafford – but is a frail midfield to blame for the latest slump?
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville claimed pressure on Solskjaer had cranked to “intolerable” levels after the Liverpool game. Fast forward a fortnight and Neville likened Manchester City’s dominance in the derby as giving United “a general anaesthetic”.
Fellow pundit Roy Keane savaged United’s derby display, saying it “felt worse [than the defeat to Liverpool],” and took aim at the midfield, adding: “I look for characters. Scott McTominay, who I know is learning his trade, Fred in midfield… these players are not good enough for Manchester United.”
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s win against Manchester United in the Premier League
United have been spending to bridge the divide with their title-tussling rivals – but the gulf in cohesion and application on the pitch appears greater than ever and was exposed with numbing realisation in two fateful weeks.
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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against Manchester United in the Premier League
A quick-fix 5-3-2 formation to address defensive frailties paid dividends in the 3-0 win at Tottenham. However, speaking after the Manchester derby, City boss Pep Guardiola explained in merely two sentences how his side switched flanks frequently to breach United’s makeshift system.
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The Red Devils have slipped into sixth on goal difference – locked level on 17 points with Brighton. Not quite the start many fans were expecting after a runners-up finish last term preceded a stellar summer transfer window.
United have now suffered four defeats in six Premier League games, with losses against Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester and Aston Villa – punctuated with a 1-1 draw against Everton and the win over Spurs.
The graphic below highlights the most damning aspect of all: United are suffering their worst run of form in the Premier League under Solskjaer since May 2019.
At the start of the campaign, major trophies and perhaps even their first league title in nine years appeared to be drawing closer – but the numbers suggest United remain off the pace.
In fact, United have won only 32.1 per cent of their clashes with ‘Big Six’ opposition during Solskjaer’s reign – nearly half the tally collected by rivals Liverpool during that period.
As it stands, United have no plans to replace Solskjaer, despite a number of players having reservations about whether he is the right man to turn things around, but the stats around Solskjaer’s United continue to be damning…
Midfield to blame?
Speaking after the Manchester derby debacle, Keane said he would “grab Ole and ask… why [he is] playing Fred?”, with the Sky Sports pundit highlighting the defensive midfield position as a major weakness.
Roy Keane gave a damning review of Manchester United’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City, suggesting a number of players are not good enough to play for the club
The Brazil international has typically started on the left of a two-man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system over the past three seasons, but has come under scrutiny during his time at the club.
The interactive table below reveals the 28-year-old has been dribbled past 26 times this season – only Everton compatriot Allan has been bypassed more frequently out of Premier League midfielders.
In addition, his duel success rate of 40.4 per cent is among the lowest ratio for defensive midfielders in the division. Some fans have questioned whether Fred needs more licence to roam after shining for Brazil in a more advanced role, playing alongside Liverpool holding midfielder Fabinho.
However, pressing data reveals the Brazilian does apply more pressure on opponents per 90 minutes than any other player at the club – surpassing fellow defensive midfielders McTominay and Nemanja Matic.
Ultimately, the graphic below highlights the broader issue of United being too easy to play through in midfield – suggesting more midfield mettle is required to bolster central areas and prevent turnovers to protect the team’s high-line style.
Defensive issues have been the primary issue behind this recent slump, but the fact that United won a league-high 31 points from losing positions last term suggests the attacking strengths have been propping defensive weaknesses for some time.
As the graphic below reveals, United rank 13th worst with 17 goals conceded and expected goals data suggests that is almost exactly the number they should have shipped, based on the quality of chances created against them.
Interestingly, United are beginning to rank very poorly for points lost from winning positions, having ceded five already – which could be an indication that the tide is turning and the customary comebacks are waning, despite the latest dramatic result against Atalanta.
Indeed, the failure to overturn results, and mistakes, are becoming increasingly prominent. United have made eight errors leading to a shot against them in the Premier League this season – only Wolves have made more.
Man Utd errors leading to shots
|David de Gea||1|
But the map below suggests the majority of these occur down the left channel – an area which came under widespread criticism for the Liverpool defeat.
Drilling down deeper behind the leaky rearguard and mistakes, United show signs of deficiencies across a raft of defensive metrics – ranking bottom in the division for tackles and winning duels, 19th for interceptions and winning aerials and 17th for ball recoveries.
Running on borrowed time
Critics frequently cite United’s recent running metrics as cause for concern, with the club ranking 15th for distance covered in the Premier League this season.
However, fellow ‘Big Six’ rivals Tottenham and Chelsea rank even lower, and United also typically play a high line – which reduces the distance required to cover by playing in a compressed area of the pitch.
But matchday numbers shed greater light on the matter by revealing United have run 22km fewer than their opponents in the 11 games so far.
Solskjaer’s side recorded lower distances in eight of those fixtures, while from the three games when they outran opposition – against Wolves, Newcastle and Tottenham – two were effectively equal to the opposition in work-rate.
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In term of the players, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes covered the most distance among regular starters for Solskjaer, but Edinson Cavani and Sancho also registered considerable coverage – albeit from short bursts of game time, often as late substitutes.
Spending cranks pressure
The contrast in application on the pitch during United’s defeats against Liverpool and City raised further questions about the level of investment spent on signings at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer has overseen a league-topping £312m net spend, while Jurgen Klopp has actually made a £3.6m profit from transfer deals since the winter window of 2019.
United’s lavish spending this summer on Jadon Sancho (£73m), Raphael Varane (£41m) and Cristiano Ronaldo (£19.7m) contrasts significantly with Liverpool’s £36m outlay on Ibrahima Konate – a fee Liverpool balanced by selling Harry Wilson, Xherdan Shaqiri, Taiwo Awoniyi and others.
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Solskjaer’s critics frequently claim results are unacceptable now the team is built in his image, after spending £441m on 13 players over six transfer windows – the highest outlay under any United manager during the post-Ferguson era.
Harry Maguire is the most expensive acquisition during Solskjaer’s tenure at £80m, followed by Sancho, Bruno Fernandes (£67.7m), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£50m), Varane, Donny van de Beek (£39m), Amad Diallo (£37.2m), Cristiano Ronaldo, Dan James (£18m) and Alex Telles (£15.4m).
Pundits’ verdict: ‘What’s Ole’s idea?’
Roy Keane gives a damning verdict on Manchester United’s performance in the derby defeat at Old Trafford
Speaking after the Liverpool defeat, Gary Neville said: “Manchester United need to change. I believe Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to get the opportunity to change. But there is going to be pressure from every source.”
After their City defeat, Neville added: “It was demoralising to the point that it gives you a headache watching it. You can lose football matches, but I always feel Manchester United have to lose football matches in a certain way. They’ve lost against Liverpool and City in poor ways. They’ve not left a glove on City. On Saturday, it felt like Manchester United just got into their shape and that was enough.”
Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher debate the future of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer following Manchester United’s humbling by Liverpool
Jamie Carragher added: “What is his style? What does he do? I keep hearing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talking about the Manchester United of the past, counter-attacking, scoring great goals – it’s like a history lesson at Manchester United.
“He was part of that history – it was amazing. What does Solskjaer do? What’s his idea? I don’t see it in terms of a plan.
“Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a really good job as Manchester United manager. This could have gone horribly wrong for United. He came into the job with experience from Scandinavia and a year at Cardiff.
“I can’t judge Solskjaer against Jose Mourinho or Louis van Gaal, who did average jobs themselves. Solskjaer will not win a Premier League or a Champions League as Manchester United manager.”
Jamie Redknapp feels the Manchester United team is ‘unravelling’, and is not convinced that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be able to turn their fortunes around
Jamie Redknapp said: “I don’t think they’ve got a structure or organisation in place and it doesn’t feel like they’re playing for each other right now. The players are playing too individually, not collectively, and I do think that comes down a lot to the manager.
“It’s a situation right now at Man Utd where players look like they’re not taking information on board, and it certainly isn’t working. I know there’s talk about giving Ole more time but I don’t know how you can say ‘we’re going to give a manager until the end of the season’ when right now, you can see everything is unravelling.
“I’ve been in dressing rooms before when things aren’t working for the manager and that’s what it looks like to me. It looks like that dressing room, in the kindest way, it feels like it would be a bit of a holiday camp. I can’t imagine Solskjaer is going in there pointing his finger telling players what they’ve got to do.”
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Solskjaer’s reaction: ‘We need to be on front foot’
After Liverpool defeat: “It’s not easy to say something, apart from it’s the darkest day I’ve had leading these players. We weren’t good enough individually or as a team. You can’t give a team like Liverpool those chances and unfortunately, we did.
“The whole performance wasn’t good enough, that’s for sure. We’ve created openings, they’ve had chances, they’ve been clinical and we didn’t take our chances early on. Then the third goal is the one that decided the game.
“It’s mine [responsibility for the loss] – that’s it. The coaching staff are brilliant and I chose the way to approach the game and today, we weren’t clinical enough going forwards. There were spaces for both teams and when you give good players spaces, they score.
“You can look back at last season when we lost 6-1 to Spurs – this is miles worse. The opposition as well, that makes it miles worse for me as a Manchester lad and we have to get over this as quick as we can and move on.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits his side’s 5-0 defeat to Liverpool is the lowest point in his time in charge at Old Trafford
After Man City defeat: “We need to get back to what we started to look like for a while, and we’ve got the players to do that.
“We’ve been in this situation a few times of course, since the last game we played here it has been a very difficult period. We need to be on the front foot more, I can’t look at myself and say this is the way I want Manchester United to play.”
Asked if he is starting to think he is on borrowed time: “No, I don’t start to do that. I have good communication all the time with the club, we’re very upfront and honest about the situation. I work for Man Utd and want the best for Man Utd and while I’m here, I’ll do what I can to improve this, and that’s going back to what we started to look like.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits his Manchester United side are going through a ‘difficult period’, but insists he is capable of turning their fortunes around
Man Utd’s upcoming fixtures
November 20: Watford (a) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
November 23: Villarreal (a) – Champions League, kick-off 5.45pm
November 28: Chelsea (a) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports
December 2: Arsenal (h) – Premier League, kick-off 8.15pm
December 5: Crystal Palace (h) – Premier League, kick-off 2pm
December 8: Young Boys (h) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
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