Devil Of A Problem: Who’s To Blame For Manchester United’s Woes?

This image is a derivative of red devils by William Brawley (CC BY 2.0)

Manchester United fans would be forgiven for thinking it feels like Groundhog Day.

To be honest, it’s been a constant state of perpetual disappointment that has seeped in among United’s tired fanbase for the best part of eight years.

Last weekend’s 1-1 draw against Everton raised more questions about the legitimacy of United’s lofty ambitions and whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the person to take them back to the promised land.

With all of their off-season investment and promise that came with it, this was supposed to be the season where the Red Devils would finally mount a sustained title challenge.

Stats Insider's EPL futures model is still giving them a 7.3% chance of winning it all, yet their recent run of form suggests that not all that much has changed at Old Trafford with the club winning just two of their past six games across all competitions while facing a treacherous run of games upon return from the upcoming international break.

Throughout the last six games United have been out-coached and outplayed by arguably ‘lesser’, ambitious mid-table sides who don’t boast the individual quality nor the spending power to match a team of their ilk.

To put it bluntly, Solskjaer’s side are underperforming and the patience among their beleaguered supporter base is growing thinner and thinner with each point dropped.

However, do all of their issues lay squarely with Solskjaer? Do these problems run deeper in the club? Do United need a fresh voice to help reinvigorate this squad?

Let’s take a look.


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Do the issues lay solely with Solskjaer?

It’s no secret that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not cut from the same cloth of the Premier League’s elite managerial clique.

Although Solskjaer won initial plaudits, his tactical inefficiencies quickly rose to the fore and has been a constant talking point surrounding his long-term suitability as United boss – despite his superiors backing him in with a four-year extension.

This season alone, Solskjaer has struggled to get the best out of an obviously talented bunch, thriving in chaotic, open games and relying almost solely on moments of individual brilliance to carry his side over the line.

Think back to their last two wins against West Ham and Villarreal where on both occasions Jesse Lingard and Cristiano Ronaldo had to bail them out with last-ditch strikes – games in which they were tested greatly.

Their big wins over both Leeds and Newcastle were also borne from Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo’s scintillating performances.

However, there’s a common trend in games United have failed to come away with results and the riddle isn’t a hard one to crack – they struggle against low-blocks and counter-attacks.

Solskjaer’s failure to address these issues stems from poor decisions at the selection table to help counter-act these sides.

You can point the finger at his decision to rest Ronaldo and Pogba against Everton on the weekend but in itself is only an isolated, one-off selection blunder in attack when compared to Solskjaer’s weekly struggle to find a consistent midfield partnership – which has been exacerbated by their lack of depth.

Throughout this season, Solskjaer has used a stunning seven different combinations but has heavily leaned on the much scrutinised ‘McFred’ (Scott McTominay and Fred) tandem.

The persistence with this partnership is baffling especially given their inability to protect the back-four but also be a creative outlet going forward plus the latter’s struggles as of late.

It’s no shock their best performance of the season against a low-block side came in their 4-1 win against Newcastle with a true number six in Nemanja Matic and a facilitator in Pogba playing alongside him – especially given their traits, albeit not entirely perfect, are the best options in United’s limited midfield corps in high possession games. 

Why haven’t they gone back to the well since? Why not try long-forgotten Donny Van De Beek in the middle alongside Matic in a game that is not the Carabao Cup?

Their inability to find a consistent midfield partnership has had a flow-on effect in both defence and attack – especially against defensive sides.

This season, United have only kept one clean-sheet in all competitions while also going nine-straight games at home without keeping another side out and conceding four in their last four against low-block outfits.

In attack, they’ve struggled to create against, you guessed it, counter-attacking sides (who had an average of 37.75% possession against them) having only scored three goals from 82 shots in their last four home games – with an average xG of 1.4 (excluding Carabao Cup fixture vs West Ham) showcasing that their high volume of shots aren’t exactly quality chances.

The results from those games? One win, one draw, two losses.

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Are there problems beyond Ole?

To play Devil’s Advocate, the issues run deeper than just Solskjaer’s inefficiencies as a coach.

If you look at their squad profile on paper, they’re supremely talented, but equally unbalanced.

Pick and choose your poison with your attackers and defenders but in the middle, there are glaring holes - which for another off-season were concerningly neglected.

United’s need for a defensive midfielder hasn’t just been a one or two season problem, it’s been a long-standing one.

The inability to secure the signature of one, however, falls beyond Solskjaer’s control and lays squarely on the shoulders of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

Throughout his tenure in the role, Woodward has been met with criticism from pundits, fans and even former managers for his wheeling and dealing at the transfer market. 

Former manager Louis Van Gaal once described United as a “commercial club, not a football club” and when you look at United’s recent dealings – you can’t help but feel that their transfer strategy has been tailored towards this.

Despite how popular Ronaldo’s signing has been among the United faithful; the transfer has raised more questions than answers especially from a footballing standpoint.

Yes, Ronaldo has scored goals and brought a buzz back to Old Trafford but United already had an excess of quality attacking options – so did they really need his services?

Given his lack of defensive work-rate and off-ball movement which actually hindered rather than benefited Juventus, does this move actually get the best out of the players around him who now need to tailor their game to suit his style of play?

Did any serious move for his services only come to fruition in order to pry him from under Manchester City’s noses?

Or was this move just to help boost the Manchester United’s brand through soaring social media metrics, filling media discourse and jersey sales?

You can argue that so far, the move has been a hit on the field in-terms of his scoring record and off the field commercially, but the results haven’t really seen a major uptick.

Could they arguably be performing better had they addressed their midfield woes before bringing in a 37-year-old Ronaldo?

As the little girl in the Old El Paso ad said all those years ago: “why not both?”

When you take into account Van Gaal’s testimony, it really does makes you think about what their transfer strategy is actually tailored towards and will this change when Woodward does stand down or will Richard Arnold, his supposed successor, be any different? 

Remember, Arnold is the same person who bragged to investors about Odion Ighalo’s signing last year being the top trend on Twitter.

You decide.

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Solskjaer has the backing of the board

In short, Solskjaer has the backing of the board.

The Glazers have thrown their support behind him and are prepared to honour his four-year contract, which if bought out, would come at a significant expense to the club.

It’s easy to forget Solskjaer is the only United manager to achieve top four finishes in successive seasons since Sir Alex left the club.

Solskjaer’s resume and tactical nous does lack in comparison to other ‘free agent’ coaches Zinedine Zidane and Antonio Conte but would either really thrive with this squad at the present?

Zidane relies on a ball-playing six akin to Casemiro, something the Red Devils don’t have and Conte’s system requires discipline and defensive work-rate - (especially in the middle of the park) – again, a part of the pitch United lack in.

If either took over tomorrow (in a hypothetical sense), neither would really truly be able to succeed without a full off-season and given the board’s promises to Solskjaer – wouldn’t they be best served to back him in for the rest of the season?

But when you also really consider the board’s transfer strategy in recent times, would any manager be able to truly thrive if management aren’t making the right signings to help mould the squad in the coach’s image?

Solskjaer does have some issues in the short-term which need addressing and he has a fortnight to sort out how to best paper over their inefficiencies in midfield, at least until the January window where they sorely need reinforcements.

Think about how Mikel Arteta turned Arsenal’s ship slightly around by using the international break to help sort out some of their problems in the short-term. Maybe, Solskjaer can take a leaf out of his book.

United’s next month is arguably their toughest stretch of games in quite some time and could, despite the backing of his higher ups, make or break Solskjaer’s future – with clashes against Chelsea, City, Liverpool and Spurs awaiting interspersed with crunch Champions League ties against Atalanta. 

But this is the exact scenario Solskjaer has thrived in time and time again. Playing off the counter, backs against the wall and needing a result to save his skin.

Just like the clutch player he was, he has stood up and bailed himself out time and time again when the pressure is on.

Although he does have the support of upper management, his nine lives are slowly running out and as we all know very well - a lot can change in a month of football.

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Nick D'Urbano

Nick D'Urbano is a freelance sports writer. Throughout Nick's career, he's worked for numerous multimedia companies in print, radio and TV. Currently, Nick covers the A-League, W-League, AFL and AFLW for News Corp Australia's Newswire along with co-hosting Twilight Football on FNR Football Nation Radio. Nick won the Antenna Award for the 2019 Youth Personality of the Year for his work on Channel 31's AFL talk show 'The Rushed Behind.

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