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Don't blame Solskjaer if he's out of his depth at United - blame the club

United have been too easy to play against this season and are on course to finish behind all three of their title rivals.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Image: Dave Thompson

MANCHESTER UNITED REMAIN drenched in their own nostalgia, a word created by the melding of two separate Greek words: nostos, meaning homecoming, and algo, which means pain.

We’ve seen the homecoming – first Ole, then Ronaldo – so now we’re getting to the pain.

A football club’s history patently matters – decades of shared, accumulated memories entrench and enshrine the club’s position in its community while also providing a shared vocabulary that connects generations of families – but history shouldn’t be the basis of the business plan.

Which very much seems to be the case at Manchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wouldn’t be the manager had he not been an iconic player at the club, but regardless of whether you think he’s the right or wrong man for the job, United’s embrace of its fabulous history is now undermining his ability to do his job.

On what planet is a manager’s steady team-building embraced by his employers right up until just before the fourth game of the season, at which point he is handed a sedentary superstar for whom he has to find a place? 

Whatever plan Solskajer had spent the summer crafting immediately was immediately thrown out of the window.

Solskajer has struggled to impose a coherent attacking philosophy at United in the way the likes of Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp and Tuchel have done at their respective English clubs, but the beginning of the season showed something was stirring, as Mason Greenwood started centrally against Leeds but cleverly vacated space for Bruno Fernandes to arrive into the penalty area.

But now that Ronaldo has arrived, that penalty area space won’t be vacant for anyone else again.

Ultimately, United have embraced the personalities rather than the principles of their glory years. Ferguson built his dynasty on total control; Solskjaer barely has any. 

It is obvious that Solskjaer is not the most important person at Manchester United: Ronaldo is a bigger figure than him, and, given his role in bringing him back to the club, it seems so too is Ferguson. Given his anointed successor failed so badly, it’s remarkable that Ferguson still has a role in the transfer policy of the fourth manager to follow him.

Where Solskajer’s diminished status matters is when it comes to picking the team: there are too many attacking superstars to form a coherent team and somebody has to make way. Ronaldo can’t be dropped – he can hardly even be substituted – and neither can Bruno Fernandes.

Perhaps Pogba can be benched intermittently, but that would be galling to Solskjaer: one of the more admirable aspects of the job he has done so far has been his management of Pogba.

But the team set-up at the moment is chaotic.

With a midfield of Pogba and McTominay and no pressing ahead of them, United were a shambles in the first-half against Villareal and could easily have been 3-0 down at the break had Gerard Moreno been available.

As it stands, United are too easy to play through and concede too many chances, regardless of who is picked in midfield 

In the games in which Ronaldo has started so far – Young Boys game excepted as United played so much of the game with 10 men – United have conceded an average of 11.75 shots per game, and they are giving up good chances, too: their average Expected Goals (xG) conceded across those games is 1.61.

And this isn’t exactly against the most vaunted of opponents: those stats comprise games against Newcastle, West Ham, Aston Villa and Villareal.  

(They are conceding an additional shot a game now compared to last season, and the xG against was lower last season, too.)

manchester-united-v-villarreal-uefa-champions-league-group-f-old-trafford Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his late winner against Villareal. Source: PA

All of these stats compare poorly to their three title rivals, all of whom have looked much more solid against better opposition.

Across the Premier League and Champions League so far, Chelsea have conceded an average of 9.8 shots per game (skewed by the 45 minutes they played with 10 men at Anfield), while Liverpool concede on average eight shots a game and City a miserly six. All of their respective xG conceded is lower, too.

Opponents are also playing through United more easily. United allow opponents an average of 66 “progressive” passes per game, defined as a pass that advances an opponent significantly closer to your goal. Liverpool and Chelsea have been allowing 61 of these passes per game; City just 53.

These stats are skewed further away from United by the quality of opponents their rivals have faced, and by this weekend, Chelsea, Liverpool and City will all have played each other at least once. United haven’t played any of them yet.

(The other trio have all also faced a more difficult Champions League tie than either of United’s.)

United are wealthier than Liverpool and have the means to compete with City and Chelsea, but for as long as their team remains as generous as it currently is, they’ll finish behind all three.

And this is the great irony at play: Ronaldo’s arrival imbalances the team and makes them more vulnerable, yet his mere presence means there is less tolerance for failure. 

Solskjaer has been undermined by having Ronaldo foisted on him after the season had already started, but maybe that’s the Faustian pact of his role: perhaps he didn’t have the authority to say he didn’t want him.

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Premier League fixtures (KO 3pm unless stated)

Saturday 

Manchester United vs Everton (12.30pm) 

Chelsea vs Southampton 

Wolves vs Newcastle 

Burnley vs Norwich 

Leeds vs Watford 

Brighton vs Arsenal (5.30pm) 

Sunday 

Spurs vs Aston Villa (2pm)

West Ham vs Brentford (2pm)

Crystal Palace vs Leicester (2pm)

Liverpool vs Manchester City (4.30pm)

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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