The humiliation of the defeat to Spurs is still raw and to add to that pain no senior centre-back has come into the club as the transfer window closed. Nothing can be done to fix this problem by bringing in new players and jettisoning other players, so now we have to rely on coaching to fix the problem.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to change a lot of the team makeup and personnel to mask the deficiencies over the defence. It is no secret that the defence was completely exposed in the Spurs game, it had been bad in the first two league games against Crystal Palace and Brighton but had been problematic in the last few weeks of last season.
So how does Solskjaer fix this defence?
First, he must stop playing Harry Maguire every single game possible, he has had a bad few months and looks like everything is catching up with him. The incident in Greece has clearly affected him but couple that with a lack of a pre-season and adequate rest has a culminated in his performances dropping dramatically.
United have to get Axel Tuanzebe fit and also keep Eric Bailly fit to make sure this defence actually has some pace at the back, if this can be done United can alternate and maintain a good balance.
Secondly, he has to drop Luke Shaw and play new signing Alex Telles. Shaw was awful against Spurs and his defensive positioning and aptitude have long been a big problem for me. Jose Mourinho targeted Luke Shaw and his positioning allowed Spurs to always have Serge Aurier on the right-hand side with acres of space to run into was a huge problem.
Telles is great going forward but he can also defend, and this might help United solidify as Shaw has repeatedly over the years lacked any final product going forward and repeatedly gets the ball on the left and cuts back inside to pass to either Maguire or Matic. (This is not picking on him; next time he plays watch how he does this rather than try to pass forward)
Thirdly even if you have a great defence and you don’t protect them, they will concede goals, United’s preferred midfield is Matic, Pogba and Bruno Fernandes and while that is good in certain games it is also very flawed in other games.
Matic is not the most mobile of player, a good one sure but not as quick on the ground as he once was and then we come to Paul Pogba. Against teams and in particular midfields who press aggressively he struggles; he likes to take a touch, and this means he can be dispossessed and caught out as he was against Spurs and Southampton in the last few months. Also, I am aware he had COVID-19 and is not fully fit but my concerns date back before that.
Bruno Fernandes does a lot of running and does track back, his role is more of a free role and this is where he must play as it’s his best place in the team and he must alternate with Paul Pogba in this role as the Frenchman can’t play the deeper role without having runners next to him to do his defensive work which he doesn’t have (as the game against Spurs indicated, for France he has N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi next to him to do his running).
Therefore, a combination of Matic/Fred/Scott McTominay/Donny Van De Beek would work better in a deeper midfield with Bruno Fernandes rotating with Paul Pogba and Van De Beek in the advanced position for certain games if needs must. Van De Beek has played both in central midfield and further forward for Ajax so I have no doubt he can do this due to his tactical awareness, brilliant technique and also extremely high footballing IQ.
United do need to make decision on Paul Pogba with his contract expiring but United do have the option to extend for a further year but that is a whole other article.
Lastly United like to press from the front but this requires a great deal of conditioning and fitness and ideally a pre-season to prepare for. They haven’t had one so I think continuing to press with an unfit squad would be tactical suicide, so ideally a low block would be best to save energy and also draw the opposition on to us to allow a quick counterattack. This doesn’t normally work in games where United dominate possession but the fixtures in the next few weeks are against good possession heavy teams so this tactic might work and spark a revival of sorts.
Solskjaer cannot keep picking the same team and running them into the ground he has to trust the squad more and with Van De Beek, Alex Telles and Edison Cavani coming in that might help out. Better squad depth will be needed for the future but also different tools for different games will allow him to pick the right team for the right game not just the same team all the time.
Having a more functional midfield might help United become more solid whilst also avoiding burnout, United have had less time than most teams to get back into shape so this might be a smart idea whilst they get up to speed.
Protecting the back four is paramount and mobility in midfield would really help out the back four and relieve the pressure on them and not expose their weaknesses.
Also, the wide players need to track back, the full backs have been badly exposed as teams have targeted the full back areas and by tracking back to relieve the pressure this would stop overloads and crosses into the box where a lot of our goals have been conceded in recent months.
Ole is under lots of pressure so he needs to come up with a plan and hopefully getting players fit will help but by making a few little tactical tweaks he can mask the weaknesses until he is in a position to make personnel changes. If he doesn’t tighten up at the back quickly then he might not be here next summer or even in January to make changes.