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Manchester United have all the components required to challenge for trophies – they just need to step things up on and off the pitch.
It cannot be forgotten that they finished second in the Premier League last season, but in the search to go one better they have moved away from what made them successful. I think there has been a lack of identity and structure throughout the club which has seeped into the squad. This season under Ole Gunnar Solskjær the players did not know whether they were a pressing team or a defensive side that counterattack.
I like Solskjær and he was great for the culture of the club and getting an association with the fans, which had been missing since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, but the top managers are tacticians and there the Norwegian fell short. It ended in a sorry affair at Watford, culminating in the negative comments from the players. I think sacking him was right because it was not working out and in the end there could only be one outcome.
The summer recruitment hindered the team. It remains to be seen whether they have recruited the right type of players, and it seems a real mismatch. Cristiano Ronaldo has obviously changed the dynamic of the squad but it is not all on him; he arrived late and at short notice and it would have taken a strong personality at United to turn down the return of a club legend still performing at such a high level.
Ronaldo has not let the team down – he keeps scoring and proving he is still one of the best around. The problem is that his signing changed the tactical plans after the season had started and tweaks were not made to accommodate his shortcomings. If the staff had known he was coming, they could have brought in a midfielder or really pinned down the identity of the player philosophy, in particular the defender of the team from the front.
Solskjær also suffered bad luck with Raphaël Varane’s injuries, because he could be a key player in the heart of the United defence. The sooner they get him back the better, to help take the pressure off Harry Maguire. The backline needs freshening up so that Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who are out of form, do not need to play every week. In the modern game full-backs are winning matches for teams, as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City are proving. Equally, the backline could be helped by the forwards, who are not doing their work when it comes to pressing and tracking back – because defending starts at the front.
Many United fans will want the team to be more positive. Under Solskjær, more often than not, they would operate with two holding midfielders. He will have had his reasons, but the formation could be adjusted to utilise just one and allow Donny van de Beek to come in and bring a more dynamic threat in the middle of the pitch.
Paul Pogba was flying at the start of the season – I watched him and thought he was brilliant. He played off the left and came into central midfield where he was causing a lot of problems. Then all of the sudden he was moved from that position. I feel for him, because he works hard and tracks back, and that can go unnoticed. Can he play in central midfield without the protection? No, but we’ve known that for a long time. It’s not all on Pogba, who has missed the past three games and won’t be back for weeks because of injury; there are others at United doing a lot less.
When it comes to the forwards having to work harder, that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Their running stats going back are nowhere near those going forward. Those players can do it but they need to take responsibility and be accountable. Liverpool and Manchester City work so much harder out of possession to win back the ball, keep opponents in their own half and protect their backline. United have all the talent but they need direction and authority to make sure that happens. They require a new manager with a strong personality who will tell them that, if they don’t put the effort in, they are off.
The right permanent manager has to come in as soon as possible. They can have an interim but if that person starts putting ideas in place that are not for the long term they will have to start again in the summer, putting the team further behind the opposition. The best solution would have been to get going immediately, allowing a new manager the January window, a full summer and a pre-season with their own ideas to revitalise the club.
But United have seemingly concluded that coach is not available, which is why they are in advanced talks with Ralf Rangnick over taking the job temporarily. Now they must look at who will be available in the summer and what direction they want to go in, which has been the issue all along. Sadly for United, the best tactical managers are in jobs at rival clubs, making it quite hard to appoint someone who can compete with Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp. At the very least, starting now, the players need to provide a considerable shift in intensity and desire. They have top-quality players, but those players have plenty more to give.