In the club’s previous Premier League encounter, Brighton & Hove Albion hit the woodwork no fewer than five times as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side gave up chance after chance. Adding a heavy defeat in that one to the opening day beating by Crystal Palace would not have been harsh on the Old Trafford side.
So what is going wrong in the Manchester United defence? And how can the club’s under-fire manager fix it before it is too late?
Coaching Linked to Manchester United Defensive Deficiencies
Defensive Players are Not Improving at Old Trafford
Manchester United possess one of the division’s most feared forward lines. Manager Solskjaer has been rightly credited with playing a crucial role in their improvement at the top end of the pitch. Under his watch, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial enjoyed the best goal-scoring seasons of their careers in 2019/20 and Mason Greenwood burst onto the scene in record-breaking fashion.
But at the other end of the field, there have been no such success stories. In fact, defensive players at Old Trafford never seem to improve these days.
In the full-back positions, an 18-year-old Luke Shaw was brought to the 2014 World Cup in place of the great Ashley Cole. That was during his Southampton days. As a Manchester United player, his time as an England international now looks like a thing of the past at the age of just 25.
Twenty-0ne-year-old right-back Diogo Dalot has recently headed to Serie A to continue his development on loan with AC Milan, having failed to progress as expected at Old Trafford. There is even talk of Brandon Williams being allowed to do the same, with Southampton reportedly interested.
Even Aaron Wan-Bissaka has looked a shadow of his former self of late. The former Crystal Palace man was outstanding in the first half of last season, despite the team’s struggles prior to the Bruno Fernandes-inspired renaissance. Since then, mistakes have crept into his game, and he was run ragged by the excellent Son Heung-min on Sunday.
This is, in short, a hugely worrying state of affairs. Young players are supposed to improve after moving to one of the biggest clubs in the land; not do the opposite.
Of course, laying the blame for all this squarely at Solskjaer’s feet would be unfair. When analysing their defensive struggles, the simple reality is that Manchester United have not established a solid centre-back pairing since the glory days of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
But then there is the equally simple reality that the club’s current defensive players have all looked like better footballers elsewhere, rather than under Solskjaer’s guidance.
Eric Bailly was once a highly-regarded young defender, having earned plaudits for his displays against Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and co. in La Liga. Victor Lindelöf was such a commanding presence at Benfica that he was even a regular free-kick taker for his old club. Both have been frequently ridiculed since moving to Manchester.
Harry Maguire once rode a wave of optimism from Leicester City all the way to a World Cup semi-final. He now seems to be getting worse with every passing week at Old Trafford. Against Tottenham, his performance was yet another shambles.
In this regard, Chris Smalling presents the most intriguing case. Much-maligned over a long Manchester United career, he left for Roma last season and suddenly started to look like an elite centre-half. Now, there is much clamour among United supporters to reinstate the 30-year-old in the place of the previously-lauded Maguire.
How Solskjaer Can Fix This Mess
So how does Solskjaer buck such a worrying trend? This is the million-dollar question. His job might depend on it. Perhaps the Norwegian could look to the man in the opposite dugout at the weekend for inspiration.
Jose Mourinho was once mocked for describing Manchester United’s second-place finish in 2018 as one of his greatest achievements. Now, it is acknowledged as realistic.
The now-Spurs manager was criticised that campaign over a perceived conservatism in United’s play. Calls to let the likes of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford ‘off the leash’ were frequent. Even so, that season’s final points tally of 81 was the first and only time the club has breached the 80-point barrier since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
Solskjaer must now be tempted to do likewise, even if it means upsetting the likes of Pogba, even if it means diminishing the attacking output of his previously-hailed front three. The former Cardiff City and Molde manager does not have the personnel to leave his back four in any way unguarded or exposed. Instead, they need further protection from those in front of them. Ensuring it might just keep Solskjaer in a job beyond this season.