It’s a new season after a summer of spending and Manchester United still have big problems under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
However, unlike last season when Solskjaer’s new managerial bounce seemed to be built on thoughts and prayers but little else, you can definitely see the framework of a plan at Old Trafford now. The Norwegian is clearly trying to establish a defined playing style. So why, then, are United still such a ramshackle outfit? The Red Devils smashed Chelsea on the opening day and credibly drew away to Wolves, but since then one point from winnable games against Crystal Palace and Southampton paint a poor picture indeed.
But exactly what is holding Manchester United back from making good on their potential under Solskjaer? Why, despite the newfound talent in the team, can they not just get it together? We’ve come up with four main reasons.
1. Rashford’s profligacy
Marcus Rashford is pretty great. This much is obvious when you watch him play, particularly in big games. The young man is absolutely bursting with talent and confidence and when he plays, United, as a whole, look like a more fluid attacking unit. Part of the reason Solskjaer felt so confident marginalising Romelu Lukaku last season was that Rashford was so effective as a front-man (and it was his injury against Liverpool and having to subsequently play through the pain that originally derailed Solskjaer’s season).
So why, then, has he only scored nine goals in the Premier League since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became manager in mid-December, 2018? It’s certainly not down to a lack of chances, as he’s hit 82 shots on target in that time frame; only Mohamed Salah has more and the Egyptian has scored 15 times. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has 15 as well, Jamie Vardy has 16, Sadio Mane has 17 and Sergio Aguero has 19, none of whom taking as many shots as Rashford.
And it’s not like Rashford has been pinging all those shots in from distance; he’s had 20 big chances since Solskjaer took over. Yet he’s only scored six of those. That’s a big chance conversion rate of 30%, which doesn’t really compare to, say, Salah’s 50% or Vardy’s 54.17%. And when you look at regular shot conversion, Rashford’s poor 12.7% stands out. He is one of just four players with 60 or more shots in that timeframe to have a conversion rate of 12 or below; the others are Aleksandar Mitrovic, who played for relegated Fulham, James Maddison – with the majority of his shots naturally coming from outside the area – and Paul Pogba.
Rashford’s inability to bury the chances he has with consistency is a big problem for Manchester United because they are a side with issues further back down the pitch and, as such, are relying on their attack to carry them forward. If Rashford can step his game up to match Anthony Martial (a shot accuracy of 63.34%, shot conversion of 22.73% and a big chance conversion of 50%) then the Red Devils could really start cooking.
2. Shambolic Set-Pieces
The reason it’s so important for Rashford to bang in the chances when he gets them is that United are seemingly unable to use one of the most traditional paths to goal in football: the set-piece. Since Solskjaer took over, the Red Devils have registered just a single assist from set-pieces, and that was Victor Lindelof’s headed assist against Crystal Palace (which was itself pre-assisted by Chris Smalling connecting with the initial corner from Ashley Young). Otherwise, there’s been nothing.
United are one of just three sides with a single set-piece assist, one of which is Aston Villa, who have played just three games in the division and the other is Fulham, who were uniformly terrible and relegated. In fact, the only Premier League sides with 0 set-piece assists are the other promoted teams Sheffield United and Norwich.
Furthermore, they have created just 29 chances from set-pieces in that time, so it’s not like they’ve been raining down shots on goal and have been unlucky. Arsenal have created just 25 chances from set-pieces but thanks to their superior delivery they have actually had seven assists when the ball is dead. And that’s the main thing: who takes United’s set-pieces? There is no consistency to it, which is why it’s so ridiculous. What Solskjaer needs to do is pick one of his players who will always play (Paul Pogba, perhaps) and have them practice their corners and wide free-kicks over and over until they can deliver consistently, because having Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford rotate corners is not the one.
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3. Weak spots at the back
A big problem United have is that whenever they do play well, they can often find themselves getting undone by ridiculous mistakes. Take the Crystal Palace winner, for instance. At a time when United should have been pressing for a winner of their own, they went ahead and lost the game because David de Gea let the ball squirm in at his near-post.
Manchester United have made six errors leading to goals since Solskjaer’s time in charge. Only four clubs have more: relegated Huddersfield and Fulham as well as the constantly ramshackle Bournemouth and Arsenal. United are masterful at shooting themselves in the foot, both with obvious errors like De Gea’s (has he lost his mojo?) and more subtle ones such as Lindelof’s two blunders against Crystal Palace and Southampton, both relating to his inability to win headers.
This is the thing: for all the excellence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire, United’s other three defensive players are prone to errors. De Gea is one that should fix itself with time, but will Lindelof ever be good enough in the air to not be a weak spot to be isolated and picked on? And Luke Shaw is just pure 6/10, while Ashley Young is only good when asked to man-mark someone. With those two rotating at left-back it should be easy for opponents to penetrate down the left side of United’s team. These weak spots are simply preventing United from even forming a solid side of their defence, let alone an entirely good back-line – these errors are likely to continue.
4. Paul Pogba and the midfield of misery
Yes, Paul Pogba is inconsistent. This is true. He’s also phenomenally talented and capable of carrying United to great heights if used correctly as the most advanced player in a midfield three. Solskjaer is using him in a deeper role this season (having freed him up last season) but one thing is certain; of his 48 chances created, only six were deemed “big” by Opta’s definition – compare that to Ryan Fraser, who created 60 chances in the same period and 14 of them were “big”. Pogba helps teammates get shots off but doesn’t put them in great goalscoring chances.
Part of that is related to the above point: besides taking terrible penalties and shooting from free-kicks, Pogba doesn’t take set-pieces and that restricts his influence to open play situations. Part of it is that United’s midfield is just a mess. Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic appear to be the choices to partner Pogba in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 and neither of them can be classified as better than average. McTominay at least has potential to grow but Matic is an absolute dud – and yet both featured ahead of Fred who Solskjaer has said is behind them in the pecking order.
Not giving a talent like Fred the minutes to grow is baffling, especially when United struggle to control games. In fact, the main problem United have is that there is no semblance of order in the middle of the park, which ultimately leads to an isolated defence and hence, causes those aforementioned individual errors. This also means that Rashford is often the only United player in a position to shoot and thus he carries a terrible burden to perform (it can’t be a coincidence that he plays well when United and England have coherent game-plans and yet struggles when they are free-wheeling it) simply because of United’s midfield being an absolute mess.
One only need look at their two choices for the No. 10 role this season: Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata. Lingard is a specialist who can be very useful in short bursts and big games, but playing him regularly runs him into the ground and kills his production. Meanwhile, Mata at 31 years old belongs in an entirely different style of team; the Mata from 2013 could have been good for United, but that was six years ago now. He’s a different player and not what United need.
Solskjaer clearly knew this, which is why they spent all summer chasing No. 10’s. Maddison, Paulo Dybala and Christian Eriksen were courted but none came, leaving United short in ability to control games and even create chances at set-pieces. See? It all comes down to midfield. Being unable to keep the pressure up in attack is how Palace and Southampton pegged them back in the last two gameweeks where United dropped silly points. In fact, since Solskjaer took over only the Saints have dropped more points from winning positions than United’s 11. Already this season they’ve dropped five, a total which would see them third in the table just one point behind City.
Of course all of these problems come back to, ultimately, the Glazer family’s trust in Ed Woodward – a man who demonstrably does not know what he’s doing when it comes to squad building. United have spent an obscene amount of money but still need to spend more on a defensive midfielder, a left-back, a right-winger, a No. 10 and maybe even another centre-back if Axel Tuanzebe doesn’t work out.
But with the squad as it is, these four problems will continue to hold United back until they are addressed. That will take time on the training pitch and smart investment from the boardroom. Without that, Manchester United risk roaming the wilderness for a long time to come.