Manchester United: Where has it gone wrong for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side?

Manchester United looked to be heading upwards when they qualified for the Champions League following a strong end to the 2019/20 season. Fast-forward three months and they are 15th in the Premier League and reeling from an embarrassing defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir.

The Champions League had provided a welcome distraction from domestic difficulties for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, but, having beaten Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, their shortcomings were exposed in an abject defeat on the banks of the Bosporus on Wednesday evening.

Manchester United were supposed to push on this season, they were supposed to build on that late surge which secured a top-four finish on the final day. Instead, they have made their worst start since the David Moyes era, and worst start at Old Trafford in almost half a century. After all the promise, how did we end up here?

A missed opportunity over the summer?

Did complacency seep into Old Trafford following their surge to qualify for the Champions League? Three months on, remarks by Gary Neville immediately after United joined Chelsea in securing a top-four finish on the final day of last season make for sobering reading.

“What Manchester United and Chelsea need now is to not think this is OK,” Neville said. “The big mistake these two clubs could make would be to think they are going catch Manchester City and Liverpool. They won’t if they don’t improve by another 10-15 per cent.

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“Solskjaer needs to spend money, but not recklessly. There needs to be a right winger, there needs to be a challenge at centre-forward, at left-back, definitely at goalkeeper and they need a centre-back, a top centre-back who can bring that level of domination to a defence like Virgil van Dijk does at Liverpool.”

Sound advice, good advice. Problem was, only Chelsea listened.

Whereas United, prior to a frantic Deadline Day, only signed a midfielder (the one position Neville did not list as requiring strengthening), Chelsea did everything that Neville said United needed to do – signing a new centre-forward (Timo Werner), a left-back (Ben Chilwell), a right winger (Kai Havertz), a goalkeeper (Edouard Mendy) and a ‘top’ centre-back (Thiago Silva).

As Neville then had to ruefully note in early September when Tottenham won 6-1 at Old Trafford, those critical months of inaction over the summer were when “they grabbed defeat from victory”.

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The delayed return to the Premier League

United returned to Premier League action just 34 days after losing to Sevilla in the Europa League with a laboured, heavy-legged defeat at home to a Crystal Palace side which had enjoyed a longer break and returned to action the week before. United’s poor display that afternoon was hardly out of keeping with those of Wolves, Chelsea and Man City in early September, all of whom also struggled on their return following a late Premier League restart.

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But the problem for United is the impression they are still playing catch-up. Perhaps their delayed start will pay dividends further down the line. But the defeat to Palace has set a tone which United are still cursing now: their momentum punctured, their confidence plunged, the 0-0 draw with Chelsea still accounts for the only point accrued from their four Old Trafford outings so far this season.

The failed pursuit of Jadon Sancho

Opportunities arrive in a time of crisis, and Manchester United were one of a select group of football clubs with shoulders broad enough not only to weather the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but to actually come out the other side stronger.

As leagues across Europe were being suspended and – in some cases – cancelled, revenue streams dried up and suddenly, the value of some of the best talent in European football plummeted.

It prompted Solskjaer to declare Manchester United could “exploit” the transfer market back in April, and the prospect of luring long-term target Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund at a reduced rate made for fascinating reading.

But United’s unwillingness to meet Dortmund’s valuation saw indecision haunt yet another transfer window. Their top target stayed put, Solskjaer was forced to backtrack on his initial comments, and a flurry of Deadline Day signings did little to appease calls for reinforcements.

The lack of pace in defence

As far as former United captain Neville was concerned, the pursuit of Sancho was way down on the list of priorities Solskjaer had to address in the summer.

Despite keeping nine clean sheets during an unbeaten final 14-game run in the Premier League, establishing a defensive unit fit to shoulder a title challenge remained the ultimate objective. And the first 90-minute performance from Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof only emboldened Neville’s claim.

“We can talk about Sancho all we like but until Manchester United get a centre-back who can run and defend one-on-ones they are never going to win the league,” he said after the 3-1 opening-day defeat to Crystal Palace. “They are never going to win the Premier League with that centre-back pairing.”

When Solskjaer listened to calls to inject some pace into his backline after it was given the run-around at Brighton, Maguire and new centre-back partner Eric Bailly shipped six goals against Tottenham in a shambolic, joint-heaviest home defeat in Premier League history.

United looked to have turned the corner with back-to-back clean sheets against Chelsea and RB Leipzig after Neymar and Kylian Mbappe were nullified in a morale-boosting victory at Paris Saint-Germain, but defeat to Arsenal and the calamitous setback in Istanbul has undone that progress and left Solskjaer wondering who to entrust in defence.

…And a lack of leadership?

The accusation United lack leadership has gained traction all week. “I don’t see any leaders out there,” Roy Keane told Sky Sports on Sunday after the 1-0 loss to Arsenal. “There’s a real lack of quality. There’s a long way back for this club.”

While Maguire has bristled at the description, United’s extraordinary concession to Demba Ba on Wednesday in Turkey, when the entire United team were situated in the final 30 yards of the pitch, has inevitably raised more questions about the type of players that Solskjaer has at his disposal.

The unsolved midfield conundrum

On one hand there is United’s best player, and on the other there is the club’s record signing. On paper it makes for a mouth-watering meeting of minds and talent, but in reality this season Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are yet to click.

“They can’t play together. They are not a midfield and never will be.” While Jamie Carragher’s damning verdict suggests the partnership has no future, the frequency with which Solskjaer has turned to Scott McTominay and Fred – and had success – tells its own story.

With Fernandes and Pogba the balance is off, their abundant creativity and quality offset by a neglection of responsibilities that leaves an already fragile defence exposed.

And then, when you throw in the curious case of Donny van de Beek – the summer signing brought in to provide competition for United’s first-choice midfield pairing but who has yet to start a Premier League game – Solskjaer has issues mounting and few, if any, clear solutions to solve them.

Man Utd fixtures

Sat Nov 7: Everton (a)

Tues Nov 24: Istanbul Basaksehir (h)

Sat Nov 28: Southampton (a)

Wed Dec 2: PSG (h)

Sat Dec 5: West Ham (a)

Tues Dec 8: RB Leipzig (a)

Sat Dec 12: Man City (h)

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