From August to December, after every dropped point at Old Trafford, the soundtrack was the same. A moody Jose Mourinho would slump in his press conference and say things like he can’t compete with the other big clubs who spend money to sign new players, United aren’t backing him, the squad isn’t good enough.
“You can’t objectively look at this team and tell me that’s a bad squad” was the line of his detractors. The team had spent plenty of money. They bought two center backs in consecutive years for him. They had Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial to name a few. What the team needed was a manager who knew how to get the best out of the players United already had.
Out went Mourinho and in came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We all know what happened next. United are unbeaten in nine games, with eight wins. Marcus Rashford has six goals in eight league games under Solskjaer. Paul Pogba (six goals and five assists) has been involved in 11 goals since the change, more than any player in Europe in that time.
Solskjaer has found a great balance between letting this talented group just play, as well as great tactical gameplans helping them pick up big away wins at Tottenham, Leicester, and Arsenal in the FA Cup.
It’s no secret that United’s great start under Solskjaer was certainly aided by a weaker schedule. That’s going to change in February when the Red Devils face PSG, Chelsea, and Liverpool in consecutive weeks, then open March with consecutive away games to PSG and Arsenal (the match against Manchester City will likely be moved as that weekend is the FA Cup quarterfinal).
It’s during this run that not only will Solskjaer’s tactical acumen be tested, but the depth of his squad as well.
That’s where things get dicy because while Solskjaer has been able to figure out what United’s best XI is, he’s also learned that their depth is almost nonexistent.
Since taking over, Solskjaer has shown an adept ability to judge the talent he has, as well as being ruthless with his squad selection.
Jose Mourinho favorite Marouane Fellaini, was deemed not good enough and played just 27 minutes under Solskjaer before being offloaded to China. Mourinho’s ‘manager’s player of the year’ Scott McTominay may have gotten a new contract, but has also been sent to the U23s. Matteo Darmian has played just 91 minutes, while club captain Antonio Valencia has only made one matchday squad under the Norwegian.
Marcus Rashford, who was rarely used centrally under Mourinho has firmly established himself as the team’s first choice striker. Combining him with Anthony Martial on the wing has given United some much needed pace and a much more dynamic attack.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rashford and Martial have been involved in more goals than any United players since they both made their debut. Martial has more goals than anyone since his debut in Sept 2015, while Rashford has more than anyone since he first came on in Feb 2016. Mourinho never deemed them good enough and forced the club to spend big on Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
Herein lies the problem for Solskjaer. His United team plays a very up tempo style, which suits Pogba, Rashford, Martial, and Lingard. It doesn’t suit Sanchez, Lukaku, or Juan Mata.
Lukaku has been decent off the bench for Solskjaer, and he put in a shift on the right wing against Arsenal, but he still hasn’t been able to make much of an impact centrally. Juan Mata, who I believed was criminally underused by both Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, has failed to contribute, or even establish himself in this new setup.
Then there’s Sanchez. It was always clear he didn’t fit Mourinho’s style and there was hope that combining him with Rashford and Lingard would ignite him. That hasn’t worked, and while he’s mostly played with Lukaku, he got a chance to start on the wing Sunday against Leicester. He failed to impress and it was only surprising that he wasn’t withdrawn sooner.
Deeper on the pitch, Solskjaer has found a three man midfield with Pogba, Nemanja Matic, and Ander Herrera. Herrera’s defensive work with Matic has allowed Pogba the freedom to really blossom, but after that there isn’t much.
With the glut of games coming up it’s crucial for Solskjaer to keep his team fresh. That’s much easier said then done. United don’t have a player who can do what Matic does, which explains why he’s ever-present in the lineup.
Last week, a home game against Burnley seemed like a good chance to rotate the squad a bit. Out went Martial, Lingard, and Herrera and in came Lukaku, Mata, and Andreas Pereira, a youngster that fans had been very high on.
Lukaku and Mata looked off the pace but it was Pereira who proved that he’s simply not good enough for this team. He hadn’t started a league match since the second game of the season and he showed why. New signing Fred has made three appearances since the managerial change, and hasn’t done anything to suggest he deserves more.
Solskjaer has helped the club answer a lot of questions for the future. Pereira doesn’t have a future at the club. Juan Mata’s contract is up and for as good as he is, he may be better off elsewhere. The jury is still out on Fred as sometimes it can take a player a year to really adapt to English football (look at Victor Lindelof). The club needs to figure out what to do with Sanchez and Lukaku whose contracts make them nearly immovable.
When Solskjaer took over six weeks ago, United were 11 points off the top four. It didn’t look like United’s league campaign would be going anywhere and Solskjaer would be able to use those games to prepare to make a run in the Champions League and the FA Cup.
Now, United are two points behind Chelsea, right in the thick of it. Every league match is far more crucial than any of us thought it would be, while the FA Cup and Champions League are both very much there for the taking. Suddenly, rotating the squad in any match presents a much bigger risk.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gotten the best out of United. His best XI can compete with any team in Europe right now. The problem is, maybe Mourinho was right. Maybe the players United spent all that money on (at Mourinho’s whim) aren’t good enough.
And that could be United’s undoing.
[Photo: Getty Images]