The honeymoon is over. Three losses in their last four games in all competitions – their worst four-game run all season – have darkened the clouds over Old Trafford after the prolonged happiness during the beginning of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign.
Three games aren’t enough to erase the credit Solskjaer earned during his 12-game unbeaten start in the league as United manager after taking over from Jose Mourinho, but some of his predecessor’s common complaints must now be popping up in the Norwegian’s head.
Tuesday night’s loss to Wolves was particularly disappointing because of the way United had started. They could easily have been 3-0 up, with Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard both sending point-blank headers straight at goalkeeper Rui Patricio either side of Scott McTominay’s goal, his first for the club.
What must be harder for Solskjaer to stomach is the way United capitulated after conceding the equaliser – itself an unfortunate moment in that it came through an error from Fred, who apart from his failure to control, under no pressure, an admittedly over-hit pass from David de Gea, had an excellent game.
As Solskjaer is fond of reminding everyone, this is Manchester United. Even against a side as impressive as Wolves have been this season, it shouldn’t be so hard for the Norwegian’s team to impose their will on a game.
And therein lies the problem that Mourinho had already identified. This team doesn’t have the ability to control a game on a regular basis. Fred was brought in to be a deep-lying midfielder and play that role, but until he cuts the mistakes out of his game, he will never completely instill confidence.
No player on the pitch completed more passes (35), made more ball recoveries (6) or won more tackles (2) than Fred in the first half vs. Wolves— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 2, 2019
He also resisted his first assist of the campaign. 🅰️ pic.twitter.com/rhKb1F1SER
Then of course there’s the issue of Paul Pogba, who after looking rejuvenated in Solskjaer’s first two months has reverted to the inconsistent, maddening player who so frustrated Mourinho. Against Wolves he was anonymous, as if he was either still in France where he’s been dominant for the national team or already in Madrid, where apparently he would like to be playing.
United won’t countenance selling him this summer, and he may be unaffordable for Real Madrid anyway given the number of players they intend on buying during their rebuild in the next transfer window. And there’s a good chance that Pogba’s comments during the international break about dreaming of playing for Zinedine Zidane in the famous white shirt of Madrid was as much a notice to United ahead of upcoming contract negotiations, when he is sure to raise doubts about his ability to win anything of note in current surroundings, as it was a come-and-get-me plea to Madrid.
But Solskjaer would be entitled to ask Pogba about his own contributions. On top form he looks like one of the best midfielders in the world, but how often have United seen top form from the 26-year-old when it’s mattered?
Pogba v Wolves:— bet365 (@bet365) April 2, 2019
Pass completion - 69% (2nd worst on pitch)
Dispossessed - 3 times (2nd worst on pitch)
Dribbled past - 2 times (2nd worst on pitch)
Tackle success - 33%
Aerials won - 67%
Interceptions - 0
Clearances - 0
Dribble success - 50%
Shots on target - 0
Through balls - 0 pic.twitter.com/P3Xbs4FnjJ
In any case, even if Pogba’s future at the club were completely secure, United still need another midfielder, someone who can help Fred dictate play and recycle possession and set Pogba up to add his genius whenever necessary.
And there’s the defence, which this season has never been more than acceptably solid at best, and is shambolic at worst. Even after Fred gave the ball away on Tuesday, the defence could have prevented the Wolves opener; as for the second-half Chris Smalling own goal that gave United the loss, the less said the better.
Smalling and his compatriot Phil Jones seem to be stuck in a cycle that has gone on their entire United careers, which began in 2011 for both. They will string a handful of good games together, throw in one error-strewn display, get injured, come back, and repeat the same steps.
If this side is to truly compete for major trophies again, they need one, if not two, top-class centre-backs, players the promising Victor Lindelof can learn from, and can keep Smalling and Jones away from the first-choice XI.
Likewise, they need a new right-back: the 20-year-old Diogo Dalot has potential but isn’t yet a player who should be making the starting XI for a title contender, while Ashley Young, who lost possession a whopping 19 times against Wolves and was a candidate for United’s worst player even before he was sent off, should be eased into retirement rather than start regular – as de facto club captain, to boot.
Ashley Young's game vs Wolves:— utdarena (@utdarena) April 2, 2019
30 passes completed (67% accuracy)
19 lost possessions
5 duels lost
3 tackles failed
3 long balls completed (30% accuracy)
0% cross accuracy
A poor game. pic.twitter.com/unPBN7mGGu
And this is where United’s decision-making comes under question: Young, Jones, and Smalling were all handed new contracts this year. The club have made no secret of the fact that they’re targeting a centre-back and right-back in the transfer window, so why spend money on three players in those positions that shouldn’t have a future at the club?
Solskjaer already knew it and the last four games have made it clear: there is a lot of work to be done before the statement “this is Manchester United” can mean what it used to again.
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