Manchester United’s underlying weaknesses have been well and truly exposed in recent weeks.
After an initial bounce under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Red Devils have been pummelled at the hands of a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona and an Everton side that totally outmatched them for intensity and, if we’re being honest, quality. All within the space of just five days.
Fair enough, Messi is the ultimate Jedi master of modern football, while Sunday’s 4-0 defeat against Everton rounds off a run of three wins, four draws and no goals conceded at Goodison Park for the Toffees in their last four home games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and United.
However, more than the results, the performances highlighted huge deficiencies in the United squad. During their recent run of six defeats in eight games, a number of Solskjaer’s players have been out-run and out-fought or simply made costly errors to undo all the hard work at the start of the Norwegian’s regime.
But which five players are letting Solskjaer down the most? At Squawka, we’ve taken a look at the main culprits.
1. David de Gea
Big old caveat coming here; David de Gea is still a brilliant goalkeeper and we’re not suggesting otherwise.
However, his form at points this season and especially within the last few games has been woeful.
Take a look at Everton’s first three goals on Sunday. Richarlison’s? Probably would have saved it if he hadn’t stopped moving his arms. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s? It was a good strike but look at that goalmouth at Goodison. It’s pristine, there’s no wet cement there, so why is he moving so slowly across his line?
And Lucas Digne’s? The strike was true and straight through a crowd of bodies, so no problem there. However, the fact that De Gea was pinned to his goalline by Bernard – the smallest player on the pitch – and therefore unable to catch the ball or make a convincing clearance is very worrying.
Is this a recurring theme or just a hangover from his horrendous error in the week where he let a Messi shot squirm under him into the back of the net? Years of consistency between the sticks at Old Trafford would suggest De Gea is merely going through a temporary blip.
As one of United’s longest-standing bastions of strength, though, it’s a blip that he and Solskjaer need to end, fast.
£52m. £52m?! Wow.
It’s easy to dismiss a player too early nowadays, such is the relentless expectation for immediate results in football. But when a player cost as much as Fred did last summer and has been so absolutely terrible this season, you can perfectly understand a lack of patience.
Sure, Fred is a neat and tidy little footballer, notching up an 86.83% pass completion rate in the Premier League since Solskjaer took the wheel. However, it’s what he’s doing – or not doing – with the ball that is the main issue.
Fred’s only assist to date under Solskjaer came during United’s 2-1 defeat to Wolves at the start of April while he has created a grand total of just four chances in the Premier League during that time. By contrast, centre-back Victor Lindelof and the perpetually injured Alexis Sanchez have both created five.
So, Fred isn’t a creator, no? Apparently, he’s a midfield pivot, there to recycle possession and offer some mobile protection in front of the back four. Well, under Solskjaer in the Premier League, Fred has made just 46 recoveries, 14 tackles, five interceptions and one lonesome block. Even Jesse Lingard, who has also suffered terrible injury problems recently, has out-tackled Fred in the Solskjaer era, making 15 so far.
The former Shakhtar Donetsk man is cruising through life at Old Trafford, offering precious little to just about every area where he’s needed and is seemingly oblivious to the strife going on around him.
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3. Nemanja Matic
One thing that really stood out during the mauling at Everton was United’s inability to disrupt Marco Silva’s side. Whether it was on the break or building a patient move from the back, the Toffees seemed to ghost through United’s midfield as if it wasn’t there at all. Moreover, the Blues had far more hunger to disrupt and frustrate United when they tried the same thing, making 13 interceptions to the Red Devils’ six.
As he admitted himself, Nemanja Matic was United’s ‘biggest problem’ in the midfield meat-grinder at Goodison, with his immobility and lack of energy horrifically highlighted with the way the likes of Sigurdsson and Idrissa Gueye swarmed around him like flies.
“I, the most experienced of all of us, did not play well today,” he told the media after the match. “We can’t blame the young players, I was the biggest problem for the team today.
“In such matches, you have to win the duels in the middle, so the team can play better. We didn’t do that today.”
During the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal back in March, Matic failed to make a single interception as Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and co made the Serb look like a lumbering mess, way past his prime. As such, his form has now dropped off to the point where he is often discarded to the bench to allow academy graduate Scott McTominay to add some much-needed vigour to the midfield.
Matic has lost 68 of his 134 Premier League duels under Solskjaer and unless something rapidly improves, he could be one of the first names on the transfer list come the summer window.
4. Anthony Martial
For years now, Anthony Martial has threatened to become a top-class talent for United, before going completely anonymous for months on end. With just one goal in his last nine games, this is definitely one of his anonymous spells.
In the 774 minutes of Premier League football Martial has played under Solskjaer, he has managed to create just one big chance, score three goals and have just 505 touches of the ball – fewer than Ander Herrera (659) who has played 42 minutes less and just 35 more than Diogo Dalot, who has played 84 minutes less.
In the Champions League, it gets even worse. In 132 minutes, the 23-year-old didn’t manage a goal, assist or shot on target and completed just two successful dribbles.
Given that he signed a contract extension back in January, we suspect Martial will be given much more time than some of his teammates and appears to be firmly in Solskjaer’s plans, although even he seems to be losing a little patience.
“I’ve spoken to individuals and they know, and Anthony’s one of them, I’ve spoken to all of them individually what we expect from them,” Solskjaer said recently.
His complete lack of contribution and decisiveness only serves to take you back and wonder about the French Media’s ridicule when United paid £36m, rising to £59m, to Monaco for Martial back in 2015.
5. Romelu Lukaku
It was only a couple of months ago that Romelu Lukaku fired in consecutive braces in wins over Crystal Palace, Southampton and PSG and was looking like he was really stamping his authority down as United’s main centre-forward.
Form still appears to be temporary, however, and those six goals in three games remain his only strikes since scoring against Reading in the FA Cup at the start of January.
The big Belgian failed to register a single shot during his return to Goodison Park on Sunday and the Everton faithful were not shy in voicing their opinion of him. Incredibly, Lukaku managed to win 10 aerial duels on Sunday, by far the most on the pitch, but often found himself on the periphery of play and registered just 39 touches of the ball.
Most alarmingly for United is the fact that Lukaku has converted just 27.27% of his 11 big chances in the Premier League during the Solskjaer era. Often clumsy with his first touch and quite ineffective when linking play, the 25-year-old’s move to United was predicated on the fact that he was a lethal goalscorer and he simply just had to be on the end of deliveries from the likes of Lingard and Paul Pogba.
With seven goals in 19 appearances under Solskjaer, one wonders whether Lukaku will be immediately dropped once Lingard is fully fit, with Marcus Rashford resuming the central role in which he flourished earlier in the Norwegian’s reign.
One thing is for sure; that £75m fee is looking more and more expensive by the game, while the Old Trafford exit rumours are growing.