Is Solskjaer's Manchester United literally coming up short?
Background image: Heikki Immonen, CC BY 3.0
When Pep Guardiola arrived in the Premier League, critics claimed he needed to adjust to the division’s physicality. The Catalan disagreed but his first season seemed to vindicate his opponents. He then made two key signings that solidified City defensively. Ederson arrived between the sticks to provide the boss with the technically proficient keeper he desired. Just as importantly, though, Aymeric Laporte’s midseason signing gave the Sky Blues greater muscle at the back. His importance is revealed in the Citizens’ inability to keep up with Liverpool in the Premier League table without him.
The Reds' 17-point advantage prior to City’s Sunday match with Arsenal is also a product of a manager beefing up his rearguard. In Jurgen Klopp’s case, Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk were the solutions to the Merseysiders’ fragility.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer addressed the issue at Old Trafford by recruiting Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. After David de Gea’s weak punch resulted in a Victor Lindelof own goal in Sunday afternoon action, some may believe he didn’t do enough. Others might think referee Michael Oliver and VAR Craig Pawson should have legislated Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s forearm shiver to the Spaniard’s neck. Regardless, the draw against Everton offered signs Manchester United need a little more oomph at the opposite end of the pitch.
Solskjaer appears settled on a front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James with Jesse Lingard or Andreas Pereira in support.
Unlike Calvert-Lewin at the other end, you won’t see a United forward bullying a centre-half, much less a goalkeeper. Rashford and Martial possess the size to be forceful in the box but prefer to take the ball on the perimeter and try to dance around defenders. They’re more likely to go down hoping to draw a penalty than initiate contact themselves.
Even though he displays the courage to venture into tight spaces, James’ size works against him. The Welsh international assisted on Mason Greenwood’s equaliser by running across the top of the 18 rather than into Michael Kean and Yerry Mina’s waiting arms. His speed on the flank allows him to stretch defences and he provides tremendous support for Wan-Bissaka with his relentless back-tracking but his inability to put anything into a pair of late shots after pinballing off the Toffees centre-backs exposes his weakness.
At 22, James’ slight build works against him. If he spends time in the weight room, adding the necessary muscle to his frame, he may prove as effective as Sergio Aguero in future campaigns. If he doesn’t, it’s not unfair to suggest his career is already at its peak.
Two former strikers stood in the technical area during this match, their comparative size mirroring the disparity between Calvert-Lewin and James. Duncan Ferguson is a large man who owned space in the box. Solskjaer is smaller and made his name sneaking into open areas. Each manages according to how he played.
It’s early in the Norwegian’s tenure. He’s had one transfer window and a year to assess his squad. Young, they raise their level for important games but lack the professionalism to maintain it against lesser squads. They also come up short in the technical department, less confident in controlling possession than catching opponents on the break where their individual pace kills.
Solskjaer must address both issues. He can do so in the market, bringing in a touch more size and experience to give United another dimension. United need an answer when bigger, taller opponents exploit their advantage.
Long term solutions can be identified in June. A short-term option presents itself now. Former United talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic is available after playing out his contract with LA Galaxy. An ACL injury removed him from the equation in April of his lone season at Old Trafford. Forced to hobble to the winners’ podium to accept his Europa League medal, the Swede may think he has unfinished business in Manchester.
At 37, Ibra isn’t going to run past anyone. On the other hand, he won’t be pushed around. He owns space like Big Dunc once did. In addition, he knows how to finish. United miss too many chances this term. If Solskjaer is willing to think outside his tactical box, Zlatan might give him a different option in attack. He’ll also add height in either box during set-pieces.
Jose Mourinho wasn’t wrong to look to Zlatan and Marouane Fellaini to provide a muscular element to his United. Solskjaer was too quick in parting ways with the Belgian. Ole doesn’t need to rethink his philosophy. He only needs to recognise where it comes up short.