Manchester United got a key run off to an embarrassing start as under-fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were humbled 4-2 at Leicester.
Already under pressure before that loss, things do not get any easier for the Red Devils as Atalanta arrive in the Champions League on Wednesday before Liverpool come to town next Sunday.
Trips to Tottenham and Atalanta follow before an Old Trafford clash with Manchester City sends them into the November international break.
Heading into this unenviable run, the PA news agency takes a look at what went wrong at Leicester and some of the wider issues at United.
The best teams are built on solid foundations and United have managed to keep just one clean sheet over their last 19 matches in all competitions. That shutout came in the first of four matches that summer signing Raphael Varane and captain Harry Maguire have managed to start together. The former was injured for the trip to Leicester and the latter was rushed back to face his former club after a calf issue. Maguire’s selection raised eyebrows and led to post-match criticism that Solskjaer accepted as the rusty centre-back put in a calamitous display, with his dilly-dallying leading to Youri Tielemans’ equaliser on a day when he struggled throughout.
Lack of focus
It was not just Maguire who underperformed on Saturday – as Solskjaer pointed out, the fact goalkeeper David De Gea was United’s star man and still conceded four said everything about their performance. Paul Pogba was among those to put in a disappointing display and said “we need to change something” as they conceded “stupid goals” on a day he felt the side lacked maturity. Solskjaer believes it was less an issue of maturity and more about “focus in key moments”. That has long been a thorn in United’s side and was never as clear as when Jamie Vardy made it 3-2 just 54 seconds after the returning Marcus Rashford had equalised. Patson Daka’s late goal also highlighted their longstanding issue dealing with set pieces.
The midfield set-up has been an issue for a while, thanks in no small part to the lack of an elite defensive midfielder. Solskjaer has regularly leant on the duo of Scott McTominay and Fred, which offers defensive cover but few attacking options. Pogba and Nemanja Matic started as the midfield two at the King Power Stadium but performed poorly, looking cumbersome in possession against a sharp, hungry Leicester side. Bruno Fernandes, so impressive since joining from Sporting in January 2020, looked lost and Solskjaer has some thinking to do about the profile of his midfield and the system.
Make Ronaldo fit
Cristiano Ronaldo returned to much fanfare and lifted the mood around Old Trafford. The 36-year-old has scored five goals in his first seven appearance back at the club – an impressive return that does not disguise the fact that United have yet to get the best from him. Ronaldo has not had the service he yearns for and his lack of pressing has been well documented, with Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers saying United’s “central players weren’t pressing so we could be patient and work the ball through the pitch”. There is no doubt that the Portuguese is a generational talent, but United need to utilise his qualities in a way that complements his team-mates. Fellow big-name arrival Jadon Sancho, Donny Van De Beek and Jesse Lingard are others that Solskjaer has yet to get the best from.
Scrutiny on Solskjaer
Solskjaer has had his fair share of ups and downs since coming in as Jose Mourinho’s successor in December 2018, initially on a temporary basis. The likeable 1999 treble hero has faced waves of intense pressure during that time but has had a knack of producing big performances at key times, with an impressive record against the top sides. The Norwegian, who signed a new deal until 2024 in July, has to prove that again in the coming weeks as pressure, externally at least, is mounting. United have made progress during his reign – highlighted by finishing runners-up last year in the Premier League and Europa League – but Solskjaer knows better than most how important it is to bring silverware back to Old Trafford.
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