What a difference a year makes.
It is January 13, 2019 and Manchester United have just come away with an impressive 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur – their sixth successive win under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since he took the reins as caretaker manager. The Norwegian is already being heralded as the new Messiah by the United faithful.
Fast-forward 12 months and it is staggering how much the club has regressed. Especially considering they weren’t at a particularly high level to begin with.
It was telling that Arsenal – in their third game under Mikel Arteta – looked more tactically astute than United have ever done under Solskjaer in Arsenal’s convincing win over the decadent Manchester club on New Year’s Day.
After more than a year at the Old Trafford helm, Solskjaer’s tactics are almost entirely built around playing quick players up front and hitting opponents on the break – a style that has so far proved successful against the big teams who like to play on the front foot.
They are tactics usually employed by smaller teams against bigger and better opponents and they are tactics unbecoming of a club of Manchester United’s stature.
However, as Arsenal and, more recently, Manchester City proved, it only takes minor tactical adjustments to negate United’s threat on the break.
The League Cup defeat to City was particularly damning. Kevin De Bruyne claimed that it took City just 15 minutes to adjust to their league defeat in December and come up with a system to take United apart at Old Trafford.
So basic was Solskjaer’s system that it took a quarter of an hour to dismantle it at the second time of asking. Ultimately, United were made to look like amateurs and were lucky to only concede three in a shambolic opening half.
Having said that, it is United’s failings against teams residing in the bottom half of the table that highlights their most significant shortcomings under the Norwegian.
When teams try to play United at their own game by sitting deep and hitting on the break, Solskjaer’s men look void of any ideas and seldom seem capable of breaking teams down.
They have failed to win more than two games in a row since that win over Tottenham exactly a year ago – further evidence that the current situation is not sustainable.
To their credit, they were ruthless against last-placed Norwich City at the weekend, but one swallow does not make a summer and the same problems are likely to surface again against relegation fodder before the end of the season.
United are so often static and insipid against a well-structured back four that it is a wonder that they manage to score at all. There is no creativity in a Pogba-less United midfield and Solskjaer must take a good portion of the blame. He is now in his third transfer window as United boss and has yet to buy a central midfield player, despite the squad’s deficiencies being obvious to the most casual supporter.
Solskaer’s decision not to bolster his midfield puts pressure on him to develop the players at his disposal, but there has been no evidence that he is capable of doing so as yet.
His departure now feels inevitable and it leaves the United hierarchy facing a conundrum:
Is it wise to back a manager in the transfer market who is destined for the axe?
Their squad is already made up of players signed by a plethora of managers who have been dispatched. Saturday’s starting XI against Norwich contained players signed by Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer himself, along with a healthy dose of academy graduates.
If there is one redeeming factor of Solskjaer’s reign, it is the progression of those academy graduates. Marcus Rashford is enjoying his most prolific season by some distance, while 18-year-old Mason Greenwood is enjoying a sensational breakthrough season that he certainly wouldn’t have seen under Solskjaer’s predecessor. Brandon Williams has also been a revelation at left back and his star continues to rise with every passing game.
However, United’s position is far too perilous to rely on a handful of teenagers and there is a glaring necessity to spend in the transfer market.
If the United board do provide Solskjaer with a January war chest to make badly needed signings and then proceed to sack him in the spring or summer, they will leave his replacement with even more players signed by another failed manager.
However, if United don’t make acquisitions in the winter, they are likely to send an already disenfranchised fanbase into a hysteria not yet seen at Old Trafford.
Ed Woodward and co have backed themselves into a corner; they simply have to act in the transfer market, but doing so means either sticking with a failing Solskjaer with little hope of a change in fortune, or parting ways and providing his replacement with an even more fragmented squad.