Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in an impossible position. Things have got so bad at Manchester United, after their chastening 5-0 defeat to Liverpool last Sunday, that no result could stem the tide. In a week that started with his sacking feeling imminent, a number of factors have seen him improbably remain in situ.
Whether it was the lack of immediately available replacements, the intervention of Sir Alex Ferguson or a genuine will to persist with him, Solskjaer is still here. For now at least, he must find a way forward. The most pressing concern is getting United through Saturday’s game with Tottenham Hotspur. So what does that look like for the beleaguered United boss?
The first phase of Operation: Rebuild is already out of the way. The match analysis and ensuing difficult conversations will have already taken place. The harshness of Solskjaer’s words remain a mystery, but surely there can have been few positives after that utter capitulation at Old Trafford. The next matter will have been the training. There is only so much coaching one can impart in a week, and that is not to mention the doubts over whether United’s backroom team are the people to do so. United’s loss to Liverpool was largely down to a disorganised press, with the remaining players not supporting the nearest teammate to the ball. A cohesive press is complicated to implement, and it is doubtful any significant headway will have been made in a week.
Tactical tweaks will have to take the place of the much-needed strategic reforms. One wonders if Solskjaer will change his system for the trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. A 4-3-3 was drilled and experimented with during the summer, before being discarded when the season began. Some have speculated about the Red Devils moving to three at the back but, as with pressing, this would require extensive work on the training ground.
The Sportsman looked at how to implement some new ideas in midfield here, and the 4-3-3 came off well in our analysis. Considering time has already been spent on this formation, a team as desperate for fresh ideas as this United side could do worse than try this adjustment.
By virtue of being the most visible work Ole has done since the Liverpool drubbing, the team sheet will be hotly-debated in the build-up to kick-off. One potentially awkward problem has been taken care of, with Paul Pogba serving a three-match suspension after being sent off in the Liverpool game. Implementing Pogba’s talents into a system that hides the Frenchman’s weakness has been a persistent headache for Solskjaer, who perhaps won’t mind being without the mercurial midfielder.
What is clear is that changes will need to be made. After being comprehensively run-over by Atalanta and Liverpool, the Scott McTominay/Fred pivot cannot be retained. The experience of Nemanja Matic, slow though he is, would surely be a settling influence on this erratic midfield. Now might also be the perfect time to employ Donny van de Beek. The Dutchman is a criminally underused piece of the Old Trafford puzzle, with Ole reluctant to field the former Ajax man. However, with his reign closing in on the point of no return, and Pogba in absentia, there is surely no better time to see if Donny can provide something different in the middle of the park.
Another player who deserves to be in the frame for a recall is Jesse Lingard. Starting the season strongly in a ‘super sub’ role that evoked his manager at times, Lingard has become an increasingly rare presence on matchdays. Not the most technical player in the world, he does guarantee you 90 minutes of hard work, passion and an eye for goal. At a club rapidly losing its carefully-restored identity, United could do worse than letting a youth product remind doubters what the club is all about.
Solskjaer will need to be brave with his other selections. One would be dropping Cristiano Ronaldo. He scores goals, and his absence against Everton was blamed for that underwhelming draw in some circles, but he is not beyond reproach. Ronaldo’s towering presence seems to be shackling some of those around him, with reports swirling about enmity with Mason Greenwood particularly worrying. He also disrupts the way this United squad were designed to play. Greenwood or Edinson Cavani in the central striking role, with Jadon Sancho finally fielded on the right flank he was bought to occupy, is surely a calculated risk. If it fails, you upset Ronaldo, who is at least satiated by the fact he won’t be dropped again for a while. If it succeeds, the serial winner would probably see the bright side to United getting a vital three points.
Defensively, it appears to be a case of praying Raphael Varane has 90 minutes in him after returning from injury. The United back-line has looked dreadful since losing their summer buy from Real Madrid, with Maguire failing to convince alongside Lindelof. Luke Shaw has also declined, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka is no longer the brick-wall he once was on the right. Diogo Dalot provides a more attacking option down the right, but for a team that looks defensively fragile already he may be best kept in reserve. However, Alex Telles’ rare cameos indicate he could offer enough to challenge Shaw for the left-side berth.
Ironically, Solskjaer’s big selection worry from last season is probably his least pressing concern as it stands. David De Gea has enjoyed a superb season between the posts, and carries no blame for the Liverpool drubbing. To replace him with the albeit excellent Dean Henderson would be unfair, and no more than a cosmetic change to demonstrate “something” is being done about the club’s woes.
Saturday represents the first game of the rest of Solskjaer’s United career. He has been allowed to stand on the precipice of losing his job, before being hastily pulled back at the last second. While bleak, this can be a freeing moment for Solskjaer. He has freedom to shake things up, a responsibility to change things. The only wrong answer from the Norwegian would be to persist with a similar team to the one that just got decimated. Solskjaer’s bravery is the key to extending his stay at Manchester United.
Man United are 7/5 to beat Spurs with Betfred while the home side can be backed at 2/1. The draw is 13/5.