Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, Alex Telles and Fred
The Europa League final was supposed to crown a long campaign of steady progress at Manchester United with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first piece of silverware. Instead, Villarreal’s win by way of a 22-kick penalty shoot-out sucked the air out of the entire season, raising familiar issues and posing familiar questions.
Solskjaer wasted no time in attempting to put things right after that final, getting back to work the very next morning. The United manager knew how the manner of the defeat could sink the optimism steadily built up over the campaign. Fortunately, through purposeful spending in the transfer market and some decent early results, it was salvaged.
A lot has changed at Old Trafford in the weeks and months since but, in a way, Gdansk was still just nine games ago. And less than three weeks on from the Cristiano Ronaldo homecoming that lifted United to the top of the Premier League table, a run of three defeats in four games means those familiar questions are being asked all over again.
Saturday’s setback against Aston Villa has redoubled the scrutiny on United and Solskjaer. And on the eve of a rematch with Villarreal at Old Trafford in the Champions League group stages, it is worth asking, for all the shirt sales and social media impressions generated over the summer, whether much really has changed since Gdansk.
Some of the similarities are surface level. Like in May, there will be no Harry Maguire. The United captain was an unused substitute that night but had no chance of playing so soon after suffering ankle ligament damage and did not even kick a ball during the warm-up. His presence on the bench was merely a Solskjaer mind game, executed to little effect. This time, Maguire will not even make it that far.
The calf injury sustained in the Villa defeat has ruled him out of this Group F meeting and could keep him sidelined for several weeks. “It doesn’t look good,” Solskjaer conceded yesterday. And though Maguire would be the first to admit that he has not started the season especially well, and certainly short of his displays with England at the European Championship, his absence nevertheless presents a problem.
In the likely absence of both the centre-back and Luke Shaw, who also came off injured against Villa, United are deprived of their two vessels for bringing the ball out from the back. No player in the squad carried possession up the pitch more often than Shaw last season while Maguire is one of the best in the world in his position at doing the same. His presence was sorely missed in May and it will be felt once more.
That Solskjaer lacks the tactical acumen of other top coaches is becoming an increasingly common argument and his reluctance to directly answer questions on his style and principles of play may only be fuelling the debate. Even his friend and former team-mate Gary Neville implied this weekend that United are not yet showing the “patterns of play” of their rivals for the Premier League, while being careful not to be overly critical.
“You need patterns of play, you need a way of playing, and at this moment in time I still see a group of individuals playing in moments, with some patterns and combinations at times, but still a team where some are pretty new together,” Neville said. “They’ve got to come together as a team and start to define a style of play. Then you start to get results when you don’t play well.”
Criticism of Solskjaer’s tactics can be over the top. There is a plan in place. The United manager has always said he aims to play fast and direct football, in a style that he, Neville and many others associate with Sir Alex Ferguson’s great sides. Maguire and Shaw are key to it, as are Paul Pogba and the roaming Bruno Fernandes, with United’s attack lopsided towards the left flank.
The problems arise when opponents shut down this route up the pitch, denying Solskjaer’s players the space they require to thrive, just as Villarreal’s deep banks of four and low block did in Gdansk. United dominated possession, yet despite being behind for 26 minutes and chasing a winner for the rest of the evening, they only mustered two shots more than Unai Emery’s side and only finished with a marginally higher xG total.
Even since Fernandes’ arrival, struggling to create with the ball has persisted throughout Solskjaer’s tenure, which is now approaching its third anniversary. It is far from the only foible. Villarreal’s visit is of increased importance after the opening defeat away to Young Boys, where – again, like in the Europa final – Solskjaer’s use of substitutions came into question. At least one of United’s ghosts from Gdansk has been exorcised, though.
Whereas some goalkeepers would have never recovered from conceding 11 consecutive penalties in a shoot-out then missing their own kick to lose a final, David de Gea has started the season in form. There is a slice of fortune in his revival, as Dean Henderson looked likely to begin the campaign as No 1 before suffering the double misfortune of a hip injury and Covid-19 infection, but that can take nothing away from De Gea’s performances.
The question over whether he or Henderson should be United’s No 1 was a live one last time out against Villarreal but it has been temporarily answered, receding into the background for the moment. Others from that night remain. Solskjaer and his staff have watched the Gdansk game back this week, noting what went well, searching for solutions to what didn’t, hoping to demonstrate that lessons have been learned.
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