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Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

A lot of people are enjoying just how much United are struggling at the moment, and I can’t blame them. From the start of the Premier League to the end of the Ferguson era, a majority of football fans in England despised the Red Devils. A lot of that hate came from fans who hated their success, which is pretty standard. Most of the big clubs in Europe are hated for being big. Fans love an underdog story and seeing a team dominate makes a generally unpredictable sport, a lot more predictable. The other element to why football supporters dislike them is United’s own fans, another view I can completely sympathise. The title of ‘glory hunters’ has been placed on all United fans since the Premier League’s conception. I’ve spoken to numerous United fans in the past 4 years, and many do not follow the club anymore. I hear it’s because of the lack of entertainment the recent managers have thrived towards, but it’s clear it’s about the lack of trophies. A lot of United fans have this sense of entitlement, which means they deserve a great brand of football, young stars breaking through and winning or at least challenging for the league every season. It’s an attitude that doesn’t matter anymore when their closest rivals are just so far ahead of them. Just like Liverpool after their dominance in the eighties, it’ll take a while before Manchester United are back to battling with the best. I have to bring up the fans because it’s partly their fault that the perspective of Manchester United this season is just so negative. They have a right to be frustrated, but I don’t think it’s been as bad as in the past.

So, do I think United have been terrible? Short answer, no, but long answer, kind of. The best way to explain how United have performed is to go through some of their games, and see where they’ve gone right, and most importantly, wrong.

Let’s start with the summer. United’s approach was a strange one, wanting to stock up on their homegrown quota with primarily targeting British players. They arguably overspent on all of their acquisitions. Daniel James arriving for £18 million was intriguing because it felt like the first time in years since United bought an attacker for relatively low risk. He at least offered versatility and is very young, meaning he could either improve or United could get their money back if it didn’t work out for the young Welshman.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived after a fantastic debut season. He is arguably the best defensive full-back in Europe, but there were apparent issues with signing the former Crystal Palace defender. While the defensive part of his game was never in question, Wan-Bissaka simply wasn’t offering a similar output as the full-backs in the top six clubs. He’s a decent dribbler but wasn’t creating chances for Palace. With United spending so much money on the 21-year-old, you have to hope Wan-Bissaka simply develops into a great attacker, or Solsjkaer can turn him into an excellent full-back.

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Maguire was the final signing. No one can argue that United haven’t overspent on the former Hull City defender, but at the same time, he was a definite improvement. Maguire is a very progressive defender, being comfortable on the ball and a capable distributor on the ball. In transforming the Red Devils into Solsjkaer vision of a more exciting team, having a defender like Maguire would help United when facing those teams who set up in a deep block. He is also fantastic in the air. His size and jump make him not only a great defender when facing taller strikers, but giving any team a considerable advantage on set-pieces, a part of football that many teams are desperate to find more value from. He scored five goals for Leicester, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s when he scored those goals which is noteworthy. He scored winners or equalisers against Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United, gaining Leicester some valuable points. Manchester United have been mediocre at set-pieces for years, so bringing in a threat like Maguire could help in their push for top four. Maguire still has an obvious flaw in his game, and it worries me that the most expensive defender could be exposed by certain opponents. Maguire is slow, noticeably slow. United were likely to field a high line, to bring the pressure onto their opposition and to take advantage of actually having ball-playing defenders. The problem they were going to face is the likeliness of a pacey forward getting the better of Maguire. It is a problem that was obvious at Leicester, but having a more defensive system did protect them from forwards with a burst of speed. A sensible signing, but far from value for money.

These three signings did bring a boost to the club; addressing their most significant issues. It’s something United have consistently never done. Whether bringing in Anthony Martial on deadline day back in 2015 because they forgot they only had a single striker or spending £60 million on Fred when midfield, at that point, wasn’t as clear of a priority as a centre-back. Like me, you can question the value United can get out of these players, but at least they were targetting the right players.

The biggest issue with United’s summer was the players they let go, combining well with the other personnel issues they failed to resolve. Letting Herrera go was by far the strangest decision they made in the summer. The Spaniard did add a lot of defensive output some bite in a team that lacked a bit of character. Not only was letting him go on a free a stupid idea but not replacing him with a player who could bring the same defensive work as Herrera did was by far the worst part of United summer. It meant they were going into the season with an ageing Matic, a disinterested Paul Pogba, an average Scott McTominay and an underwhelming Fred. It was so bad that Pogba would have to play a more restrained role, something he can do, but it isn’t what he should be doing. Solsjkaer would also be hoping that Fred could find some form for the first time since arriving in Manchester. It left United at such a disadvantage. When Manchester City bring in Rodri, Tottenham with Ndombele and Arsenal with Ceballos, it made United’s goal of reaching top four even harder.

Selling Lukaku on paper isn’t the worst decision. It was clear that Lukaku’s type of player wasn’t needed, so getting their money back was the right thing to do, but not replacing him was crazy. I love Rashford and Martial and asking for tremendous seasons out of the pair is realistic, but on the slight chance they didn’t or currently in Martial’s case, injuries, it was a lot of pressure on the rest of the team and especially young Mason Greenwood, who is seen as United’s next breakout star.

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So, after a very mixed summer to say the least, how have United been in the league? Well, unlucky would be the best way to describe it. There are many reasons for this, but let’s go through their league games so far, and see how they’ve performed. Starting with their 4-0 win over Chelsea, which lead to a lot of early excitement. Scoring 4 goals at home against one of their top 6 rivals was huge, but the performance did bring optimism and apparent issues. The first half was a bit of a mess. The players looked incredibly, struggling to break Chelsea down and getting dispossessed rather easily. However, Rashford’s penalty changed the whole game. It’s a simple observation to make, but it forced Chelsea to play on the front foot, which allowed United to play to their players’ strengths, on the break.

The signings of an aerial-dominant Maguire, a defensive machine in Wan-Bissaka and a blisteringly-quick winger in James, that it set up United as a fantastic counter-attacking side, and luckily they were playing against Chelsea, who we now know quite-regularly give away excellent goal-scoring chances. This wasn’t an incredible performance from Manchester United but was extremely sufficient. They had 5 shots on target in this game and put away four of them. This might be the only time United can be described as clinical so far this season

Their 1-1 draw to Wolves is the start of a recurrent theme to describe Solsjkaer’s side: unlucky. Manchester United dominated against a Wolves side who, for a majority of the game, were playing rather negatively, sitting back and allowing United to have their way throughout the game. Wolves could have easily beaten United if they weren’t so safe, but they did help expose some of United deficiencies in the final third. United did have a majority of the ball, but only managed 9 shots with 2 on target. For years, United have struggled to break down teams who set up in a deep block. They even showed this in both of their encounters against Wolves last season, drawing the first game at Old Trafford and losing the reverse fixture. Under Van Gaal, it was down to a tactical plan that simply didn’t work. Under Mourinho, it was down to absolutely no idea in the final third, and now under Solsjkaer, it is quite different.

It’s strange to see United struggle so much when during the start of Solsjkaer’s reign up until the Liverpool game, they looked really good. They were setting up in a 4-3-3, with Rashford, Lingard and Martial playing as interchanging forwards, with Pogba advancing really far up the field. In 10 appearances, Pogba contributed to 13 goals, Rashford with 7 and Lingard and Martial with 4 each. During that strong run, the main criticisms faced, from myself included, was the opposition they were facing. But these were the same type of opponents they just couldn’t beat in the previous 4 years. It was a breath of fresh air to see United not only beating opponents they should be beating but winning with a bit more style. It wasn’t like watching Manchester City or Liverpool; however, it was a vast improvement over the football Manchester United fans had to sit through since Ferguson’s departure. Their attackers were finally allowed to express themselves instead of being held back from the manager’s ineffective systems or personal feuds.

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This game (and most of the games so far this season) just highlight the hole Herrera has left upon his departure. Having a downright weak midfield like this means they have to be protected. Pogba has moved back into a double-pivot, a role that doesn’t play to his strengths because he is receiving the ball far deeper. His key passes are still at a high 2.6 and puts up over 1.5 dribblers per game. The problem is he’s taking fewer shots than before, going from 3 last season to 1.8, highlighting how his role for the side changed from attacker to a deep creator. McTominay has looked okay in midfield, but he seems to be only playing because the players behind him in the pecking order are that bad. Matic is arguably one of the worst signings post-Ferguson, and Fred has been a disaster. McTominay does deserve credit for performing well, but improving on him wouldn’t be that difficult.

Manchester United have been unfortunate to be where they are in the table. They conceded a wonder goal to Ruben Neves and had a penalty saved against Wolves. Their 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace can also be seen as unlucky, with Rashford hitting the post from the penalty spot and a well-taken goal from Van-Aanolt misleading De Gea. If this game were played 10 times, United would win nine of them. The Red Devils dominated this game and definitely deserved more than a draw.

The next game was an improvement in performance, but United failed to get the three points, getting another 1-1 result, this time against the Saints. Southampton are usually a pretty good defensive team, but United did create some good chances, with Rashford having three that could have easily been goals. However, the problem for United here comes back to the midfield once again, but this time it’s all Pogba. It’s pretty well known how much criticism he has faced since his return to Manchester, but that is primarily down to expectations. I think he has been fantastic and United’s best outfield player. He has obviously had games where he has had a minimal impact, but overall he has been great. He’s had to do everything for United, and even more pressure is placed upon him when Pogba clearly wants out. The problem for United is when Pogba is either not playing or pressed out of a game, they can struggle to create any sort of chances. Even against Southampton, where they did manage to reduce his impact, Pogba still made 4 key passes and completed 4 dribbles. Without Pogba, United are half the team they want to be and need him if they want any kind of success this season.

A deserved win against Leicester and an arguably unfortunate result against West Ham (the performance was still pretty bad, but West Ham weren’t entirely deserving of the 3 points) did correctly show just how inconsistent United have been this season. However, you kinda have to feel sorry for Solsjkaer, He is making mistakes himself, and we will get onto that very shortly, but the lack of players he has to choose from is painful. With Pogba and Martial, their best attackers, missing games this season, the players United have to select as their replacements is pitiful. They simply lack forwards. Rashford has been playing with some sort of injury for months, and the likes of Mata, James, Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough to be starting every week, but that’s all that Solsjkaer can really choose. His team will only be able to perform once Pogba, Rashford and Martial are fully fit. Without those three, there is not a single game where United should be considered favourites for a football match.

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So let’s actually get onto Solsjkaer. Like I said before, the first two months of his reign were very good. It wasn’t like watching United return to their treble-winning best, but their best players were playing at their level for the first time in months, which sometimes is enough to carry you on the short term. United’s 4-3-3 worked well with the players they had looked to finally be the right system to fit all of their players. However, Herrera’s departure and his lack of replacement meant Solsjkaer simply didn’t have a midfield good enough to dominate while also allowing Pogba to push forward. He had to go back to the relatively stale 4-2-3-1 because there aren’t many formations that can play to United’s strengths right now. They simply don’t have the full-backs to play a back three, the midfield to play a midfield three or the strikers to play an old-school two-striker system. It’s pretty dull to watch, but until the club actually buy good players, it’s hard to see United changing.

I watched their game against Arsenal a couple of times, to see just how they play, and find out what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s start with United in attack. Firstly, I need to mention that Arsenal were playing Callum Chambers at right-back. While not a bad player, no one is quite sure yet what his best position is. United look to attack down the flanks, starting with the left, taking advantage of Arsenal’s clear weak point. Pogba was being tightly marked by Torreira. The Frenchman would usually drop deep to leave space James to be picked out by one of the defenders, or make the pass himself. The problem with this approach was that James just isn’t good. If Martial or Rashford were playing in that position, United would have been more successful. United wanted to isolate him, but nothing was really coming from it, so they started going down the right side, with Kolasinac being pretty bad defensively. Pereira and Young are bad, with Pereira being so underwhelming when in possession and Young playing at a point where he should be retired. To help a pretty inadequate pair, Rashford was consistently making runs into the right channel, with Pereira dropping deeper to allow Young to pick Rashford out. 40% of their attacks came down the right side, and no one touched the ball more than Young for United. Solsjkaer did set up his team in the right way. They were trying to expose their opponent’s evident weaknesses and consistently attempted to create chances down the wide areas. The problem, as it has throughout this lengthy analysis, has been personnel. If United had better right-sided players, they might have had more success in creating good chances.

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Even on the defensive side, United did pretty well. They played a pretty high line and put a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders, especially Guendouzi. While the teenager is clearly talented, he still possesses immaturity that will eventually be faded out of his game, but right now it is a weakness. At times, United were putting him in a three-on-one situation, and it did work, disrupting Arsenal’s build-up play. United were genuinely good in the first half, but the second half started pretty bad. They were being a lot more direct in possession and lacking that same aggression in the first half. For 15 minutes, Arsenal not only scored but deserved to score a couple more goals, if Torreira managed to get a better connection with the ball. United’s defenders’ concentration dropped, and Arsenal were quick to take advantage of that.

The last 20 minutes of the game was scrappy, to say the least. Both teams were desperately searching for that winning goal, which never came. It was the first time this season where United actually lost on xG. The second half was not good and was the worst United performed all season defensively, especially for their goal, with the whole back four at fault for Aubameyang’s goal. Maguire played him onside, Lindelof was out of position, Tuanzebe lost possession and Young didn’t make much of an effort to stop Arsenal’s Gabon goal machine.

I have been somewhat defensive of United so far. Even including that goal conceded against Arsenal, Solsjkaer’s side has remained pretty solid defensively. They’ve only conceded 8 goals this season, with understat placing them top of the league in terms of xG against. Of course, the inferior opposition they’ve faced has made it easy to look that good, but they’ve still looked mostly good against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all looking to sneak into the top 4. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka’s arrivals have made a massive difference in defence, and merely having defenders who are confident on the ball does make them a better team. The 4-2-3-1 Solsjkaer chooses to deploy could help too, giving the defence a lot of protection. Defence has been United’s problem for years, but finally looks resolved.

The problem with Solsjkaer’s Manchester United is just how bad they are in the final third. Again, Martial and Rashford not being fully fit is holding them back, but the lack of ideas when in the opposition half is hugely troubling. Their general shot quality is poor, and have struggled to create high quality chances for the forwards. Having Pogba roughly 10 yards further back than last season doesn’t help, but United’s general approach in games is reminiscent of the same problems witnessed under Mourinho, being a lack of a plan. The players seem to have no idea what to do. Again, United are good on the counter-attack and signing 3 players that benefit playing in that style does massively help. But United aren’t going to be playing on the counter-attack against every opponent. They will have to bring the game to their opponent, something they’ve failed to do in any game this season. United’s shot volume is high, but the problem is where they’ve taken them. While they rank 5th in the league for shots per game, they rank 12th for shots in the penalty area. They’re 17th for dribbles per game, and 2nd for most times fouled per game. The Red Devils have heavily relied on penalties and set pieces for goals. They are awful at set-pieces. When the only decent chance they created against Newcastle was a corner, that Maguire missed, there are apparent problems. United have been unlucky and are massively underachieving xG for, but that isn’t defending the lack of chances created.

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So if I was Solsjkaer, what would I attempt to do to fix these obvious problems. The midfield is holding them back, so I’d try and put Wan-Bissaka in there. A lot of fans have seen his massive defensive output and decent dribble numbers and think he at least should be tried out there, and I agree. Full-back is a position you don’t tend to want to play when going through the academy. When you look at some of the most prominent full-backs right now, Kimmich came through as a midfielder, Marcelo a winger and Pavard a centre-back. It’s a position you can fill pretty easily, with players who have significant engines and are at least competent defensively. United would look a lot worse in the full-back areas on the short term, but midfield is such a problem that it needs to be fixed immediately. Moving Wan-Bissaka into a more central position would allow United to go back and play a 4-3-3 with good players. The 21-year-old could fill that huge Herrera shaped hole and let Pogba play further up the pitch. McTominay has performed as the more defensively minded midfielder this season, and while he has been decent, I think I’d still look for an improvement. He’s a fine recycler of possession but just doesn’t have the same ambition and confidence in possession Pogba shows. Moving Wan-Bissaka is personally the best method to get United properly playing a 4-3-3, without including Matic and Fred in the starting XI. This change in formation pushes Pogba further forward, and if Martial and Rashford and stay fully fit for most of the season, it would at least make them okay in chance creation and remain solid.

They should definitely get kicked out of every cup competition. They simply do not have the squad to compete in more than one competition. Their league form is becoming embarrassing, and if Solsjkaer does want to push his ideas onto this team, the painful schedule is the last thing this group of players need.

This has been very long, but there was a lot to say here. United haven’t been good, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as under Mourinho. The players being targeted are still a step in the right direction. They’re a lot younger, and Solsjkaer has gotten rid of a lot of players who didn’t fit what he wanted to do, as well as players who shouldn’t have been there. If the United legend did get sacked in the coming weeks, he would probably be remembered in a slightly negative fashion, for the lack of points they’ve gathered since that PSG game. He further shows how stupid the United board are in terms of managerial appointments. I still don’t know what style of play Solsjkaer wants to play, but I’m at least curious to see where this goes. I’d like to see him stay because he could continue to make a more coherent squad since Ferguson, and give future managers a better chance to succeed at the club. Sometimes these lows can lead to massive highs, so let’s hope that’s what will happen with England’s biggest club.

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