Manchester United: Too many baby faces, too few assassins?
Background image: Henryk Niestroj
As I write this, there’s an elephant in the room. Mauricio Pochettino is on the market. Impatient Manchester United fans raise their hands on social media, squealing, “Ooh! ooh!” like the teacher’s pet in fourth form. But is the Argentine the correct answer for the Red Devils or does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deserve to see out at least the first full season in his three-year plan?
The two bring similar qualities and personalities to the job. Both conduct themselves with quiet, composed courtesy. Each favours young players, believing in the continuity promoting from within provides.
It’s easy to point to Pochettino’s success at Tottenham as the difference between the pair but the 47-year-old inherited a far more established squad when he moved to White Hart Lane in 2014/15. His initial signings were made to wait. Dele Alli went on the books that season but never featured. Harry Winks made two appearances and is still trying to crack the lineup. In year two, Poch threw Son Heung-min and Toby Alderweireld into the deep end after he had taken a season to assess the squad. Will impatient United fans so eager to welcome him tolerate another manager taking time to take stock?
Solskjaer’s first recruits at least made an immediate impact in a group with far deeper problems. Like it or not from a United perspective, the better comparison is Pochettino’s work with Southampton. People forget he took the easy way out, opting for Spurs resources rather than see things through at St Mary’s as Eddie Howe has with Bournemouth.
Some prefer to view that as ambition but the question remains; what came of that ambition? Tottenham waited five trophy-less years to reach and comprehensively lose a Champions League final. United have been there, done that. Jose Mourinho at least won his European final.
Manchester United’s tradition and resources make any comparison with So’ton an insult but Solskjaer’s program centres on signing and promoting young talents like Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood. As such, there will be growing pains and adjustment periods.
If you throw out the season opener against Chelsea, a match in which everything went their way against an opponent in similar straits, United began the campaign playing well defensively while struggling to score. In their last eight matches, however, they’ve scored two or three in six, the exceptions being the defeat to Bournemouth at Dean Court and the dead rubber against Astana featuring a squad comprised almost entirely of U23s. The problem is they’ve shipped 11 goals in that span. Growing pains, adjustment periods.
Against Sheffield United and Aston Villa, United twice fought back to gain a lead after trailing. They quickly lost both. But for those two concessions, the Red Devils would be in fifth, four points behind Chelsea for the final Champions League qualifying place.
The Blades and Villans matches resembled one another in another manner. Chris Wilder and Dean Smith’s squads gained the upper hand by bullying United. John Fleck and Lys Mousset, who parked Phil Jones on his kiester before setting up Sheffield’s first goal, were the main antagonists at Bramall Lane. At Old Trafford, Wesley led the charge for Villa.
Especially with Scott McTominay shelved, United lack physicality. In the glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson, no one pushed United around. Players like Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane saw to that. Gary Neville wasn’t called Red Dog because he’d fetch your slippers and lick your face. With smaller players like James and Juan Mata on the pitch, regularly bundled over and run through with the referee’s tacit approval, the Red Devils could use an enforcer, someone who will repay vulnerable opponents in kind.
At Tottenham, Pochettino relied on Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko to deliver the message that Spurs were not to be trifled with. Dier shouldering Sergio Ramos off the pitch in last season’s Champions League was a textbook example. He didn't pick Real Madrid's weakest player. He embarrassed the most hated bully in European football. If the Argentine takes over at United, he’ll miss the two burly midfielders who now enjoy even greater license under Jose Mourinho.
Along with McTominay, Brandon Williams looks like a player prepared to engage in a little thuggery to advance the club’s cause. Of course, both need a little time and a green light from the boss to establish their reputations. When the word gets around that there will be consequences for taking liberties, fewer liberties will be taken.
Whether it’s Solskjaer or Pochettino in charge, Manchester United need a little less baby face and a bit more assassin to resume their customary place at the top of the Premier League table.