You can’t say Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lacks situational awareness. At November’s end, Manchester United appeared relegated to mid-table status for the 2019/20 campaign’s entirety. There was no Bruno Fernandes, no Odion Ighalo. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were sidelined. Eric Bailly too. Phil Jones’ approval rating dipped more precipitously than Donald Trump’s. At least the rubber-faced defender once touted by Sir Alex Ferguson as United’s next GOAT never publicly complained that no one likes him. Still, squad decimated, the winter transfer window a month away and the Europa League group stage finale against Astana a formality, Solskjaer recognized an opportunity to audition his U23s.
Only four first-team players made the long journey to Kazakhstan. Luke Shaw was returning from injury whereas Lee Grant’s presence allowed both David de Gea and Sergio Romero avoid jet lag on the nearly 12,000 km round trip. Like Mason Greenwood and Jesse Lingard, the remaining 14 squad members were academy products. If nothing else, the 2-1 defeat in Nur-Sultan gave supporters hope for the future. Although naivete was plain to see in the team’s inability to put away their opponents. Several youngsters gave promising performances and Lingard (finally) scored.
Little more than eight months later, United’s prospects entering the Europa League Round of 16 second leg against LASK were both eerily similar and drastically different.
COVID-19 forcing matches to be played in empty stadia was, of course, the most drastic difference. Additionally, Bruno was in the squad along with a consistently healthy Pogba, Matic and, until recently, Shaw. The Reds charged up the table thanks to a 19-game unbeaten run and ultimately dispatched their last remaining rival for a Champions League place, knocking off Leicester City on their home ground no less. The future no longer appeared so distant.
On the other hand, a 5-0 lead secured four and a half months earlier rendered the second leg against LASK as irrelevant as the Astana trip. Solskjaer had another chance to explore the future. This time, however, United’s situation required him to consider more immediate needs. Experienced depth rather than youth was the priority.
United’s front and back are all but consolidated. Dean Henderson waits in the Bramall Lane wings in case David de Gea’s crisis of confidence doesn’t abate. Harry Maguire commands the left side of central defence. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Brandon Williams and Shaw comprise three quarters of the full-back corps. Pogba, Matic, McSauce and Fred blanket the deep lying midfield. Meanwhile, despite posturing from both sides, Jadon Sancho will almost certainly arrive from Borussia Dortmund to transform United’s power trio up front into a four-piece band.
Ed Woodward’s ongoing waltz with his opposite number at BVB, Hans-Joachim Watzke, permitted Solskjaer to focus on the squad’s lesser needs, namely a centre-half to provide competition for Victor Lindelof, an attacking midfielder to support Pogba and Bruno and, possibly, a right-back to spell AWB. As he did with the U23s in November, the Norwegian used the outing against LASK to gauge how desperately each vacancy needed to be filled.
On the right side of central defence, Eric Bailly took another shot to the head. He remained in the game this time, even shifting over to play the left side in a back three when Ole elected to lift Brandon Williams for a more advanced second-half substitution. Nevertheless, another scene in which physios knelt beside the Ivorian asking him to repeat ‘woman, man, person, camera, tv’, stressed the need to acquire another middle defender this summer.
When Bailly switched positions and Timothy Fosu-Mensah departed, Teden Mengi finally made his first-team debut at right-back after remaining on the bench in November against Astana. The teenager’s chance came in part because Diogo Dalot failed to make the squad due to another injury. Mengi displayed enough positive aggression and defensive responsibility for Solskjaer to hold off on any decisions regarding the Portuguese’s status with the club. Conversely Fosu-Mensah’s inability to communicate and connect with Odion Ighalo in the final third over 84 minutes raised concern about the Dutchman’s Old Trafford future. He is solid but lacks a cutting edge at either end of the pitch.
Further up the right flank, Dan James did little to convince anyone his signing was more than a stop-gap measure for the club. Although he lined up on the left side to start the match, both Juan Mata and Lingard instinctively drift towards his side. Consequently, the Welshman often found himself on the right, shrugging his shoulders at the manager while running past as if to say, “What can I do?”
More often than not, he wasn’t able to answer his own rhetorical question. Repeatedly, he took extra touches before attempting crosses into the box. LASK’s Panamanian left-back, Andres Andrade, shut him down every time. Late on, James finally began delivering service on the first touch, sending three or four promising balls into the eighteen. One can’t help but think, with Sancho’s arrival looming, it was too little, too late.
Tahith Chong joined the throng on 72 minutes but didn’t exactly wax poetic. His pace was evident for all to see as he stretched the pitch along the left flank but, unlike Marcus Rashford, he couldn’t couple athleticism with critical football abilities such as passing or shooting. Not that the 20-year-old lacks skill. Rather, he needs regular playing time to properly hone it.
His movement against the Austrians may have sufficiently impressed Werder Bremen. The Bundesliga outfit, rumoured to be kicking his tyres, narrowly retained their top flight status in a relegation playoff last month. Heading into 2020/21, Florian Kohfeldt’s side can use all the help they can get. Blessed with attacking options who block Chong’s path to United’s first team, Solskjaer should be willing to oblige.
Support in attacking midfield might concern Ole more than options on the wing in this window, however. Bruno Fernandes raised the bar there as much if not more than Gustav Eiffel’s tower elevated the Paris skyline.
As he did against Astana, Jesse Lingard put United on the board against LASK. Ole lifted him shortly afterwards, though, and, as he took a seat, the Warrington lad wore a resigned expression that suggested he was asking the same question James had while struggling even more to provide an answer. He may go down in United lore alongside past starlets like Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson.
Meanwhile, Juan Mata was the head to Tahith Chong’s tails. The former Chelsea PotY’s skill set up both United goals despite otherwise appearing half a step off the pace throughout. At 32, his career is winding down but the Spaniard proved he can still be a mature, calming presence in cup matches next season, baby-sitting youngsters while Bruno and Pogba sip tea with Nemanja Matic on the bench. He can’t make an impact against top Premier and Champions League sides, though.
If any player gave the manager unexpected hope, it was Andreas Pereira. The Belgian-born Brazilian entered the fray arguably deeper in the dog house than James and Lingard but responded to his opportunity like a star who’d been playing regularly in 2020 rather than an spare part who’d been omitted from the squad seven times and left on the bench another six since February. The 24-year-old refrained from taking the overly ambitious shots that frustrated fans and manager alike in his previous cameos, instead linking up seamlessly with United’s other attacking players, making cutting runs to the end line, dancing around defenders, once with a dazzling Cruijff turn, and choosing the most effective passes with each possession. If fans were tired of hearing about the attacking mid’s potential, they were finally given a glimpse of it realised. In his 26 minutes on the pitch, Pereira may have convinced Ole to put his contract back in the inbox.
FC Copenhagen await on Monday evening as the club pursues the last available trophy in this campaign. Solskjaer will surely return to his preferred XI for the match in Cologne. He was already fully aware of United’s immediate situation but, thanks to his team selection against Astana and LASK, he now possesses a clearer picture of his squad’s depth, where it can help him and where it needs help.