Saturday 19 October 2019

No indication in sight that Solskjaer can stop rot

Paul Pogba. Photo: PA
Paul Pogba. Photo: PA

James Ducker

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won his first nine away matches in charge but, since that dramatic 3-1 Champions League victory against Paris St-Germain at the Parc des Princes, Manchester United have not won on the road - a run of ten games spanning almost seven months - and go to second-bottom Newcastle United today desperately needing to end that hoodoo.

United's travel sickness has contributed to the club's worst start to a top-flight campaign for 30 years.

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Where will goals come from?

United failed to register a single shot on target in Thursday's goalless draw away to AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League. They have now failed to score more than once in 19 of their past 22 matches under Solskjaer and have netted just seven goals in the past nine games.

Against League One Rochdale in the Carabao Cup, 23 of their 31 shots missed the target. It has been a similar story in other games - 19 shots off target in the 2-1 defeat against Crystal Palace, 14 off target in the 1-1 draw against Arsenal and 13 failing to trouble the goalkeeper in fixtures against Southampton and Astana.

Few could argue with the decision to offload Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez but they had to be replaced and Solskjaer is already counting the cost of failing to reinforce his attack. Marcus Rashford looks particularly out of sorts and the lack of goals from midfield and set plays are increasing the pressure on a goal-shy attack, while drastically reducing the margin for error at the other end of the pitch.

Excluding penalties, United last scored from a set-piece in the league on February 27 against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

What about the pressing?

A feature of pre-season was the intensity with which United sought to press from the front as part of a co-ordinated strike high up the field. It was not perfect and needed work but there were signs of a strategy. So what has happened to those plans?

United began in that fashion against Chelsea on the opening day but things have since fizzled out to the point where it is, once again, hard to discern what the players are being asked to do. There was a fleeting attempt at pressing Arsenal high up but it did not last and, the more games United play, the more cowed they look.

Square pegs in round holes

Danny Gabbidon, a defender under Solskjaer during the Norwegian's ill-fated nine-month spell with Cardiff City, felt the manager chopped and changed players too much, often asking them to play in roles with which they were unfamiliar. The same is now happening at United.

Why did Solskjaer see fit to start with Mason Greenwood, a centre-forward and arguably his best finisher, wide right against Alkmaar and Daniel James, a winger, through the middle? The experiment lasted just 20 minutes but even then Solskjaer reacted by shifting James to the right rather than his preferred position on the left.

Similarly, against Arsenal, Axel Tuanzebe started in an unfamiliar left-back position and Ashley Young - who has experience in both full-back positions - was on the right.

Tuanzebe performed well in the main, and perhaps Solskjaer wanted a player with greater mobility up against Nicolas Pepe, but it was still a huge task for a 21-year-old centre half and it was from his mistake that Arsenal equalised.

The Pogba problem

Paul Pogba wanted to quit Old Trafford in the summer and his performances to date, when he has been fit, suggest little has changed. Trying to build a team around a player who wants out was always going to be a perilous exercise for Solskjaer and Pogba, who seems likely to miss the Newcastle game today with an ankle injury that has already seen him sit out four matches, remains as much a problem as a solution at the moment.

The young players in the squad need direction and leadership from the senior players, but the likes of Pogba and Nemanja Matic are failing to provide anything of the sort.


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