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Solskjaer must go with Fred and McTominay as first-choice midfield

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Off the mark: Edinson Cavani scores Manchester United’s third goal in their 3-1 win over Everton and his first for the club. Photo: Getty Images

Off the mark: Edinson Cavani scores Manchester United’s third goal in their 3-1 win over Everton and his first for the club. Photo: Getty Images

Off the mark: Edinson Cavani scores Manchester United’s third goal in their 3-1 win over Everton and his first for the club. Photo: Getty Images

Every team needs it, every club desires it, every manager is trying to find it and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks as though he has at least got the balance right with his midfield of Fred and Scott McTominay.

Saturday's 3-1 victory over Everton was much better from United, a club that has struggled to find an equilibrium. A business first and a football team second. A club that wants to give their managers time to build towards long-term success, forced to dispense with three in the space of just six years because results were not good enough to satisfy short-term ambitions.

In the middle of it all is Solskjaer, the scales tipping this way and that as he tries to prevent everything crashing like a waiter trying to prevent a pile of plates smashing loudly on the restaurant floor.

This win brings things back into line. After two successive defeats to Arsenal and more troubling, in the Champions League to Istanbul Basaksehir, Solskjaer emerges from another bruising week - in which his suitability as manager was once again discussed and reports emerged linking Mauricio Pochettino with the job - with an important victory and, more encouragingly, a performance to go with it.

Everton sat deep - deploying a low block - a familiar tactic against United and one they have not been particularly adept at dealing with.

But at Goodison Park, despite falling a goal behind when Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed a long ball from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford straight into the path of Bernardo, United got the balance of the team right and were able to find the cutting edge to score three goals while guarding against Everton's counter-attacking threat.

At 1-0, Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti would have believed his tactical plan had worked perfectly; that United would have to chase the game and his players could pick them off.

That they failed to do so and fell to a third successive defeat had everything to do with the presence of Fred and McTominay as holding midfielders who have the speed and mobility to run - in contrast to Nemanja Matic - and the personal discipline to play in that role and not be tempted to abandon post in search of greater impact further up the pitch - in contrast to Paul Pogba.

As a result, United were balanced in midfield and the rest of the team kept their attacking shape and threat without sacrificing its defensive solidity. Fred and McTominay will not be able to play every game together - as Solskjaer was slightly too keen to point out in his pre-rehearsed post-match press conference complaint - because the fixture schedule is too demanding and draining to do so in this condensed campaign.

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But in the big games, against the best sides, in England and Europe, they should be his first-choice pairing, with Bruno Fernandes higher up the pitch.

"Scott and Fred have done brilliant together," Solskjaer said. "They're a great partnership, with Bruno's goals, Scott and Fred with that energy and in that engine room are always key for us so our creative players can go on, create chances, show their magic. They're so disciplined and very pleased with the two of them."

Fernandes scored two of United's goals, one with a late run into the box and header, the second with a cross that may or may not have skimmed off the hair of Marcus Rashford before nestling in the far corner. Edinson Cavani came off the bench to secure United's best domestic result of the season so far with his first goal for the club.

Quite where this leaves odd man out Donny van de Beek is unclear. The Holland international is, at his best anyway, a number 10, not a holding midfielder.

He played most of his football for Ajax in that advanced role. But it would be a risk to play him alongside Fernandes with only one holding midfielder behind them because it leaves United too vulnerable at the other end of the pitch. As for Pogba, he will be leaving the club soon and can no longer be trusted to do the job asked of him unless he gets what he wants and also plays as a number 10.

Although Harry Maguire appears to be returning to something like his best and the defence played well against Everton, United simply do not have enough reliable defensive players to play a constantly open and expansive attacking game.

There are those who will insist this should be the Manchester United way, but they forget the teams built by Alex Ferguson were just as capable of grinding out narrow victories with smash and grab goals as they were of blowing teams away with front foot football. Ferguson, far more often than not, always got the balance of his teams right.

Solskjaer has got the balance he needs in his, and got the win that will dampen the fires of discontent. But the embers still smoulder. He will not keep his job if they remain around their current league position, regardless of finding a midfield partnership that works.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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