Time not on Solskjaer’s side as Manchester United face into a tricky period

A home defeat to Liverpool would pile added pressure on Old Trafford boss

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: his side have not won away from home in 11 games – including seven defeats and four draws.  Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: his side have not won away from home in 11 games – including seven defeats and four draws. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA.

 

If we begin by reviewing the final piece of the latest 90 minutes of evidence, then we turn to David de Gea at St James’ Park a fortnight ago.

Time is passing, another match is disappearing, pointless. De Gea is being waved forward by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his coaches. He runs, hesitatingly at first, from the Manchester United box into the Newcastle United half.

Newcastle had a one-goal lead. The visitors had not played well. And now they were desperate. One last set-piece offers a chance of a reprieve.

As De Gea was urged into the opposition area, you could not help but think that this was not a part of Solskjaer’s tactical plan in the 48 hours leading up to the game. It smacked of angst, which may just be the word for Manchester United.

Predictably, De Gea’s presence up front made no difference. Soon the whistle blew on Newcastle’s first home win since April. Steve Bruce looked like a man who had just made the last train.

De Gea’s team had lost again – for the third time in eight games this Premier League season. From the opposition box he walked straight into a TV camera and declared the situation: “Not acceptable”.

There appears to be a determination to be patient with the manager appointed permanently seven months ago

De Gea was frustrated that Newcastle’s goal had come from a Manchester corner. “That cannot happen,” he said.

But it had.

It is “probably the most difficult time since I’ve been here,” he said.

He’s been there eight years and four months.

United “are United”, he said.

But then he also said they had not scored in the previous game either, at AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League. So United may not really be the United everyone thinks they know.

It was becoming a list. The longer De Gea stayed on camera, the longer that list would have been. He could have added, for instance, that if the opening game of the season is set aside – 4-0 versus Chelsea – Manchester United have not scored twice in any of their ten matches since. Norwich have scored more goals this season.

It all means that after eight games of the Premier league season, United are 15 points – 15 – adrift of Liverpool, who travel to Old Trafford on Sunday. It is not the 31-point gulf separating the two clubs in May, admittedly, but only because that is a mathematical impossibility at this stage. By next May, there is every chance it could be 31 again or more.

Of course there will be a focus on the match itself. Liverpool have not won at Old Trafford under Jurgen Klopp. De Gea was injured playing for Spain on Tuesday. There are statistics and subplots.

Away games

Judging by Mike Phelan’s touchline gestures at St James’, an idea was to switch the play from flank to flank when attacking in order to wear down the opposition. Midfielders like Fred, however, do not pass the ball swiftly or dangerously enough. This version of the famous Man United play slow football and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson do not.

Even in their current slump of self-doubt, though, United should be able to strive to at least not let their fiercest rivals depart with a win on Sunday. There would be consolation in a draw.

That, though, is not a prediction; Liverpool should win.

Odd as it sounds considering the opposition, what comes after Liverpool is the real question at Old Trafford. United’s future isn’t about Sunday; as Solskjaer said on Thursday, it’s negotiating the next 2-3 years they should be dwelling on. What state will Manchester United be in come October 2021?

A problem is that the immediate will shape the longer term. After Liverpool it is Partizan in Belgrade next Thursday, and all that city means in United’s history.

It is the first of four consecutive away games in three competitions. There is Norwich next Sunday, then Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup and Bournemouth in the league. It is November 7th before United play at home again and by then the details of these matches will have added to the bigger picture.

At the moment that picture is more Edvard Munch than John Constable. In fact it is more a collage pasted together by various hands. It can hardly be described as one true vision.

Solskjaer’s talk of plans is admirable and sensible and he was thoroughly likeable even in defeat at Newcastle

Ashley Young, who is still in the team at 34, was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson. Juan Mata, another who started at Newcastle, was bought by David Moyes. Marcos Rojo, who was a second half substitute at St James’, was signed by the club when Louis Van Gaal was in charge. Nemanja Matic followed Jose Mourinho to Manchester. Harry Maguire was chased and caught by Solskjaer – for €92 million.

Individually, there is talent, but collectively it is not convincing supporters, opponents and possibly even United’s squad itself. Of as much concern for Solskjaer is whether it is persuading anyone in the boardroom and accounts department.

There appears to be a determination to be patient with the manager appointed permanently seven months ago – after he had overseen 14 victories in his first 19 matches. This has logic if belief in Solskjaer is sincere. Patience is a virtue and all that.

Dismissing managers during a season, moreover, is not a plan, it is the consequence of failed planning.

If, however, Solskjaer is being given time because that’s what United think they should do, it’s another matter. That is not a strategy with defined stages and outcomes, that’s procrastination.

Dreadful displays

The thing is, you could feel this coming. The drop-off in player performance once Solskjaer was made permanent was apparent well before those dreadful displays against Everton and Cardiff at the end of last season. One summer is not enough time to rectify deep problems, perhaps, but a first aim would have been to arrest decline. This has not happened.

Sometimes you think you might be getting this out of proportion – had Maguire scored with his free header at Newcastle, the prognosis would not be so gloomy. But then Sunday could be painful for Old Trafford if Liverpool are in a rhythm.

The quartet of away games afterwards will then attract extra attention not least because United have not won away since the Champions League night in Paris when Solskjaer sealed his position. There have been 11 games since on the road – seven defeats and four draws.

Solskjaer’s talk of plans is admirable and sensible and he was thoroughly likeable even in defeat at Newcastle. He is correct to identify the bigger picture, buying faster, more appropriate players. Many are sympathetic to his assessment and to him. The desire is to give him time.

But then kick-off time comes. If desperation follows – at home to Liverpool – it would be excruciating. The future may then seem most immediate.

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