Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United are heading into the New Year with some positive momentum after climbing to second in the Premier League table with a hard fought win over Wolves to end the year.
The Red Devils have suffered a turbulent year as has everyone due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing worldwide disruption which resulted in football stopping in England for 110 days.
Since the arrival of the Portuguese maestro Bruno Fernandes in January 2020, Manchester United have taken more points than any other team in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United side have been the in-form Premier League team since Project Restart in June 2020 picking up the second most points in the league behind runaway Premier League Champions Liverpool last season.
The Red Devils have been exceptional on the road this year setting a new club record of 11 consecutive Premier League wins before being halted by the Foxes in a 2-2 draw on Boxing Day.
There have been plenty of positives this year under Solskjaer’s guidance with the development of the front three of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial catching the eye with their goal scoring exploits. Meanwhile, Bruno Fernandes has been perhaps the best club signing since the arrival of “King” Eric Cantona from Leeds United back in 1992.
The Portuguese midfielder has lit the Premier League up with an impressive 18 goals and 14 assists in only 29 appearances. The progress in 2020 for Manchester United under Solskjaer is evident to see although, there are still some areas that need to be addressed for United to turn into a top European team again.
This season in particular United have been extremely poor defensively which is a major concern for Solskjaer going into the New Year.
Solskjaer has predominantly deployed the same back four (De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, and Shaw) since the start of the season. The arrival of the impressive Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace immediately strengthened the right-back position which is an area the Red Devils have struggled with since Gary Neville’s retirement in 2011. Wan-Bissaka was exceptional in his debut season with United earning plaudits for his defensive abilities in particular his one on one defending which he is regarded as the best in the world at. However, questions have been asked of the young English right-back’s ability on the ball and if he contributes enough offensively for United.
The United coaching staff under Solskjaer’s guidance has worked closely with Wan-Bissaka on the attacking aspect of his game and this season he has contributed more in the final third. His attacking development was clear to see with his fantastic strike away to Newcastle in the Premier League this season which was his first goal for Manchester United.
Eyebrows were raised when United made Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in the world when they bought him for £80m from Leicester City in the summer of 2019. The imposing Sheffield born defender was made club captain by Solskjaer after Ashley Young left the club for Inter Milan and he has never looked back.
Maguire has developed a good partnership at the heart of United’s defence with Swedish international Victor Lindelof under Solskjaer’s tutelage. Harry Maguire’s aerial ability, passing ability and organisational skills were apparent from the beginning with United trying to implement a more possession based style of football.
Maguire impressed in his debut campaign for United and in particular his willingness to play through injury for the club. He amassed an impressive 55 appearances for the Red Devils in the 2019/20 season the most by any player at the club. The arrival of both players proved to be the catalyst for Solskjaer’s side improving defensively last season with Manchester United having the second most clean sheets in Europe with 21 clean sheets in all competitions. The Red Devils had the third best defensive record in the Premier League conceding 36 goals in 38 games and keeping 13 clean sheets on route to their impressive third placed finish.
However, this season there appears to be more questions than answers defensively for the United manager. The goalkeeping position has been a cause of concern for the Red Devils with the ever present David de Gea failing to rediscover his previous form and consistency. The Spanish number one has been arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world for the past decade however his form has dipped ever since the 2018 World Cup with Spain.
De Gea’s lack of form was evident last season when he made a number of high profile errors in key games which cost United valuable points and progress in cup competitions. Dean Henderson has returned to the club after an impressive two-year loan spell with Sheffield United to challenge De Gea for the number one spot at Old Trafford. Solskjaer has decided to keep faith with De Gea as his number one so far this season with Henderson limited to seven appearances in cup competitions.
The Spaniard has improved his performances so far this season but questions remain regarding his long term future as number one with Henderson breathing down his neck for the starting spot. Another problem for United with De Gea as goalkeeper is his lack of authority in his box predominantly from set pieces.
United has a serious problem defending set pieces and last season conceded an eye watering 11 goals in the Premier League from them. The Red Devils have been caught at set pieces during Solskjaer’s tenure which has been an Achilles heel for this United side. His coaching staff have set up United to defend set pieces with zonal marking which has proven not to work against aggressive attacking Premier League teams. This season United have continued to struggle defensively conceding 23 goals in the Premier League in only 15 games, which is the seventh worst defensive record in the division. De Gea has kept only four clean sheets in the Premier League so far this season all at Old Trafford.
There have been some positives in recent performances with the return of Eric Bailly to the United team coinciding with them achieving two clean sheets in three matches. The erratic Ivorian has the potential to be an excellent partner alongside club captain Maguire at centre half which could steady up this defence in the New Year. Lindelof divides opinion amongst United fans regarding his long term future as a first team starter at the club. The Swedish international has impressed with his ability on the ball, positioning and his one on one defending, although he has been known to be targeted physically by opposing teams. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has three good defenders to choose from to partner Maguire in central defense with Eric Baiily, Victor Lindelof and academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe all viable options. Another positive for United under Solskjaer’s guidance is the return to form of Luke Shaw who has been exceptional this season limiting new left back arrival Alex Telles to a bit part role so far.
Perhaps the most alarming issue for Solskjaer recently is his United side starting Premier League matches lethargically and conceding goals early in matches. The Red Devils have conceded an eye watering 14 goals in the first half of Premier League games this season, which is the third worst record in the league. United have conceded 5 goals in the first 15 minutes of Premier League games so far this season which has resulted in Solskjaer’s men chasing the game. Recently performances have suggested that the Red Devils and Solskjaer have learned from past mistakes by taking control of games early. McTominay and Fred have provided the back four with some extra protection as a double pivot in central midfield resulting in United looking more solid defensively. If Manchester United are going to make significant progress this season under Solskjaer, the defensive issues will need to be addressed immediately for the team to stay in touch with league leaders and Champions Liverpool. The answers to Solskjaer’s problems are in the Manchester United squad and if he can improve the Red Devils defensively a title challenge could be on the cards for 2021.