NOT for the first time and not for the last, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United have oscillated back to crisis mode and not for the first time, and not for the last, it is their attackers who are getting all the flak.
“The front four don’t track back,” Owen Hargreaves stated this week before highlighting the inevitable and ruinous consequence of that. “They never have control of games.”
Ajax and Netherlands legend Danny Blind meanwhile launched what a tabloid described as a ‘savage attack’ on Solskjaer.
“His team are not able to put pressure on their opponents. It does not always have to be full pressing but we don’t see any of it.”
On Sky’s MNF programme, two days after United succumbed to a late Leicester assault, Gary Neville made clear who he most held responsible for his former side’s woes. It was the ‘front five, the egos’. “They think they are better than they are,” he concluded damningly.
Running parallel to this trope, from all three of the above and from seemingly everyone, is an assertion that United are a team of individuals, who rely on moments of magic from their gifted forwards and while these related takes are anything but new, they have gained fresh impetus since the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who is both brilliant and immune to putting in the hard yards. As per The Atheltic this week, from all the Premier League forwards who have played more than 270 minutes this season, Ronaldo has pressurized opponents the least. Just 2.7 pressures per game compared to 19.8 from Diogo Jota and 17.8 from Gabriel Jesus.
As staggering as these figures are, we don’t need them because the problem is self-evident. We see Ronaldo walking in the vague vicinity of a ball being played across the back. We see Pogba go wandering. We see the flailing arms in stroppy protest when the minimum of effort does not result in maximum reward.
Solskjær on his future: “I'm in dialogue with club all the time – open and honest. There is pressure on me, of course. We have progressed over the years, third, second… I've got my values as long as club believes in me, I’ve my way of managing and I believe in myself”. #MUFC pic.twitter.com/oORGLjFVkp
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) October 19, 2021
Yet as much as United’s creative department deserves reproval and lots of it, what is just as staggering is how the team’s defensive frailties are so often over-looked, or at least diminished due to the welter of criticism aimed further up field. A fully-fit, first-choice back five for the Reds consists of De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Varane and Shaw and that is a collective that compares favourably to any rearguard across Europe. But this group and their understudies have kept only one clean sheet in their last 19 competitive fixtures.
Granted, what hardly helps their cause are the regular deficiencies ahead of them; the lack of protection that leaves them isolated, but that only partly excuses their own limitations that has seen them ship in 29 in that period, at a rate of 1.5 goals against per game. Among that number have been plenty of individual errors, as evidenced at the weekend when Maguire was at fault, along with positional naivety, while just shy of a third of United's Premier League goals conceded last season were from set piece situations.
To put their porous shortcomings into sharp context, Chelsea and Manchester City have kept nine clean sheets during this period, that stretches back to April, and Liverpool have managed ten. To put it into even sharper focus, United’s shiftless strikers have conjured up 38 moments of individuality in that time to Chelsea’s 28 but Solskjaer’s men have won four games fewer.
It is their defence that is Manchester United’s undoing. It has always been their defence.
Which is worrying, considering that on Sunday a back-line missing Varane and featuring a semi-fit Harry Maguire, are set to encounter an attacking force that in terms of intensity and work-rate and menace is everything United’s front-line is not.
In thrashing Watford last Saturday lunchtime, Liverpool became the first English side to score 3+ goals in seven consecutive away fixtures while Mo Salah has epitomized their ruthless rejuvenation, scoring ten in ten. Jurgen Klopp’s revived Reds last failed to score 18 games ago and so destructive are they right now you fear for the hosts unless they rise to the occasion and staunchly respond to their critics. If they don’t it’s perfectly possible we may witness a repeat of last term, when Liverpool ran out 4-2 winners, courtesy of Roberto Firmino scoring a hat-trick just like he did at Vicarage Road last week.
And should the Merseysiders add to their fierce rival’s current trauma, the timing of the goals are pertinent. Liverpool may have scored 63% of this season’s haul in the second period of games but they also have a habit of starting brightly, converting eight in the opening half an hour. United, for their part, tend to score late, just like last season, with six already slotted home beyond the 80th minute. If they continue this trend it will likely be a consolation.
Back to Gary Neville. ‘To be fair, they are an odd bunch and they could go out and do Liverpool on Sunday’. That was his fair assessment but for a game of such magnitude we know better than to bet on conceivable quirks that go against form and instinct. Liverpool will very probably win this weekend and very possibly comprehensively.