Stop the sloppiness, match Cristiano Ronaldo’s will to win, be braver on the ball… and no more excuses! What Ole Gunnar Solskjaer MUST tell Manchester United’s struggling stars this week if he is to salvage their season – and save his job
- Manchester United players returned to training this week after their week off
- Stuck in a brutal run of form, United know now is the time to pick up victories
- Under-fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must also hammer home some some key points
- Becoming tighter at the back and braver in midfield will help him dodge the axe
- United must also lean on the winners in their squad to help them out of trouble
The doom and gloom was etched onto the faces of the few Manchester United players who reported back to training early this week. For them, their surprise week off provided some much needed respite, but now the hard work begins again.
And for United, that is the only way they will be able to turn around their dismal run of form. Confidence is low, knives are being planted in backs, and the atmosphere is threatening to become eerily similar to the final days of Jose Mourinho’s reign.
While there is no widespread dressing room rebellion against manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a club legend so mercilessly out of his depth this season, there is a feeling that he has taken them as far as he can. However, no change in the dugout is imminent.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will hope to inspire Manchester United to turn their poor season around
Donny van de Beek was among the first-team players who returned to training this week after time off – and the out-of-favour midfielder was not the only one looking glum at Carrington
As a result, Solskjaer will return to the training field this week and set about plotting the path to saving his job. There is bafflement over his tactics, or lack of them, and more recently players have been left shocked at the manager’s refusal to rotate the squad more.
It is a mountain to climb. He has referenced scaling peaks before – particularly ahead of United’s thrilling Champions League comeback victory against PSG in 2019 – but this feels different. Now, there may be no way back for him.
But if there is one accusation supporters cannot make about the man in the hot seat, it is about his work ethic and drive. Solskjaer has often been at Carrington at the crack of dawn, along with his coaching staff, to try and find ways to improve.
While he does just that over the next few days, Sportsmail has taken a look at the key points he will surely be hammering into his players, who know they can afford no more slip-ups if they are to finally get their hands on a trophy this season…
The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes have been frustrated with United’s errors
NO MORE ROOM FOR MISTAKES
Cast your eye back over the majority of United’s fixtures so far this season, and several worrying trends begin to appear. While there is a clear lack of a cohesive system and some patterns of play, there are also a staggering number of errors.
Whether they are on an individual or team basis, there are simply far too many. They are a significant reason behind the club’s stuttering fortunes, and will quite rightly have Solskjaer tearing out grey hairs inside the dressing room.
Some of these mistakes stem from coaching, with players uncertain of where they should be playing, but the rest are inexcusable and are born out of a lack of concentration, sloppy play and, as some fans believe, a lack of interest at times.
Across the back, each of United’s defenders will have made an error. David de Gea has largely been faultless, but his distribution is an issue and he is still capable of allowing a soft effort to sneak in. His centre backs are also surprisingly shaky.
Both Harry Maguire (centre) and Luke Shaw (right) have been guilty of glaring mistakes
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, perhaps suffering from a post Euro 2020 hangover, have fallen far below their usual standards. As for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, he was torn to shreds over both his defensive positioning and ability on the ball in the derby defeat by Manchester City.
In midfield, Fred and Scott McTominay are guilty of surrendering possession too easily, and also fail to break up attacks with fouls. Bruno Fernandes, meanwhile, has attempted the spectacular pass too often, when a simple one would suffice.
There is also an apparent disconnect in the forward areas. Mason Greenwood has reportedly left Cristiano Ronaldo frustrated with his tendency to not pass at key moments, while Jadon Sancho has not hit the ground running after his arrival, sitting forlornly on the bench for the most part.
It is a to-do list longer than the United manager’s arm and he will hope to have the time to solve many of these problems ahead of the Watford clash.
TIGHTEN UP AT THE BACK
As alluded to above, United’s lowly position in the league is a result of a hectic mess of different dilemmas. There will be a lot of plate spinning needed from coaches, but they would do well to first take a look at the shambolic defensive displays.
The decline across United’s back line has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. After all, coming into the season they looked to have assembled the best four-man unit in the Premier League – with Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Raphael Varane and Shaw also starters.
But the cold, hard statistics lay out a very different tale. This season, they have a total of 18.5 expected goals against (xGA). Extraordinarily, this number stacks up against a number of clubs fighting for their lives to avoid relegation.
Despite having a star-studded back four, United have leaked goals and defended calamitously
In fact, for this metric, United have fared marginally better than Watford, Burnley, Newcastle and Norwich. Yet Solskjaer and his players were not widely expected to battle relegation but instead push for the title this term – although this is all but a pipe dream now.
With United two-nil down against Liverpool in their eventual 5-0 loss at their hands of their historic rivals, some numbers flashed up on the screen, courtesy of Sky Sports, which put more pressure on Solskjaer. They betrayed everything about the defending.
They revealed that, at the time, United made the fewest tackles per 90 minutes of any top-flight team. Solskjaer has often insisted during his spell in charge that he wants his side to be a throwback to the aggressive teams of old. They are miles away.
There can be no better way to neatly encapsulate the feeling of confusion and anger directed at United’s attempts to not concede than Roy Keane’s typically forthright words. His exasperation came to a head when he declared: ‘I give up.’
Solskjaer will have little choice but to shore up his defence now he is staring down the barrel
BE BRAVER ON THE BALL
At this point, it would be a good idea to set the scene. It is one United supporters have seen countless times this season – and the stars of the show are Fred and McTominay, Solskjaer’s two trusted generals who make up the double pivot in midfield.
When the team look to play out from the back, the ball is typically shifted to a full back and then funneled on down the flank. Then there may be an attempt to combine sharply with a forward, or a pass may be directed into the centre.
When the second option is taken, United tend to begin to stutter and break down. Neither Fred nor McTominay are supremely gifted in possession, and both have been known to struggle at playing quick passes through the lines at the right time.
Fred (left) and Scott McTominay (right) have come under fire for not being brave in midfield
The latter has also been heavily criticised for failing to show for the ball, while Fred, for all his talent in harrying opponents and making interceptions, is capable of playing a cross-field pass one second and then skewing into the stands the next.
Solskjaer has not been able to solve this riddle just yet. It is obvious that he believes they can make an impact in the biggest of games. Donny van de Beek is paying dearly for his reluctance to take a risk, though.
United have no choice but to improve on how they play through the midfield, and whoever does get the nod in the centre of the pitch for the next few games will be crucial for this. Van de Beek needs chances, and will leave if he doesn’t get them.
So, either Fred and McTominay keep their spots and are put to work on their passing, or Van de Beek is brought in from the cold. Moulded in Ajax’s academy, he is more adept at one-touch moves, and would aid Solskjaer’s cause.
Van de Beek (right) has been repeatedly kept on the bench and now looks destined to leave
LISTEN TO THE BORN WINNERS
There is a growing feeling at United that it is time they make a clean break with their past and instead focus on building a winning project again from the ground up. But at this point in time they would do well to lean on the experience of some players.
The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Raphael Varane have won trophies before and are driven this season to do just that again with United. It is this competitive spirit and quest for perfection which makes them perfect team-mates.
Yes, they will overstep the line and yes, they may even take aim at their manager for certain structural failings. But if United are to become a club capable of pushing on all fronts again, they need to adopt and embrace this across their whole squad.
Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes have a winning mentality, and United must lean on this more
Solskjaer himself knows what it takes to lift silverware, of course. The ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ was United’s hero in the 1999 Champions League final, and clearly possesses a darker side beneath that grin. His players should want to do the same.
No one is questioning their ability, which makes their current failings that bit more confusing. And that has caused pundits to take aim at the mentality of the squad instead, and their willingness to do whatever it takes to get their hands on a trophy.
Ronaldo certainly would, and there is no doubting that Fernandes and Varane would follow his example. They must lead the way in this uncertain new era, and their team-mates have little choice but to set aside any egos and commit themselves fully.
With so much on the line, and Solskjaer staring down the barrel, there is no longer any time for chancers. Over the next few weeks, supporters will want to see a collective effort in a bid to climb towards the top again. Nothing less will do.
Raphael Varane was another player to arrive at United with vast experience of lifting trophies
FIGHT FOR THEIR SPOTS… AND THE CLUB
Over the international break, more and more reports were released which detail a growing level of frustration about Solskjaer’s reluctance to use the full depths of his squad. Those on the fringes have rarely been used this season.
According to The Telegraph, Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard, Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly, Alex Telles, Diogo Dalot, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial all began the campaign expecting to be handed ample playing time by their manager.
However, none of these names have made a notable impact – and they have not been able to as a result of their extremely limited minutes. Some of the players opted against leaving last summer, under the impression they would feature more.
Anthony Martial (left) and Jesse Lingard (right) have both endured limited minutes this term
The situation will eventually come to a breaking point, and it is likely to end with Solskjaer finally playing his outcasts. They are already out of the Carabao Cup, but with fixtures coming thick and fast the under-fire boss may have little choice.
And when his frustrated players are given an opportunity, they must seize it with both hands. There may well finally be competition for places, and those involved in this tussle must relish it and use it to drive them on to deliver better performances.
At the very least, they must feel pride in themselves and the badge they represent. United will need total commitment from their stars if they are to drag themselves out of their current rough patch, and good-natured battles with team-mates are healthy.
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