It wasn’t so long ago that Manchester United were spoken about as genuine contenders for this season’s Premier League title.
After achieving a second-place finish last term, and adding Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to a squad already considered one of the strongest around, many predicted that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team would take the next step in their development.
However, such predictions have so far proved to be wide of the mark. With nine rounds of fixtures played, United are eight points off the pace being set by Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table (and out to 51.0 in outright betting). Recent heavy defeats to Leicester City and Liverpool have cast doubt over Solskjaer’s future at Old Trafford.
The defending was so calamitous in the 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool that the situation might now be irretrievable. Recent reports claim a number of Manchester United players are now openly questioning the coaching credentials of Solskjaer and his staff with the Norwegian tactically out of his depth against the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
But what specifically has gone so badly wrong for United this season? What are they not doing now that they were doing last term, when only Manchester City finished above them? What has changed since the summer when the Old Trafford outfit looked to stand their best chance of title glory since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement?
Much has been made of United’s inability to press high on opponents. While Solskjaer has pushed players up the pitch in an attempt to force opposition mistakes, there is no coordination to the pressing play. The result? When the first man is evaded, United’s double pivot (most commonly Fred and Scott McTominay) are left overwhelmed.
Solskjaer’s side are currently ranked a lowly 14th in the Premier League for distance covered this season with Liverpool and Manchester City both significantly higher. Looking at the matchday numbers, the difference between United and their rivals is even clearer having run 25km less than their opponents in their first nine league fixtures.
Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard are, statistically, Manchester United’s hardest-working players, covering 15.4km and 12km per match respectively this season. However, both players have been peripheral figures recently. Instead, United’s frontline is now led by Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s clocking just 9km per match this season, a figure that only David de Gea (a goalkeeper) and Harry Maguire (a central defender) are charting less than.
Cavani masked a lot of structural problems for Manchester United last season. The Uruguayan’s work rate in pressing from the front meant Solskjaer could push his midfield further up the pitch with Bruno Fernandes backing up as the second line. However, Fernandes is now the one leading the press with Ronaldo unable to. That opens up a colossal space between the attack and midfield for opponents to find.
In their individual actions, Manchester United are also lacking. No Premier League team has won more tackles or duels than Solskjaer’s so far this season. United also ranked 18th for interceptions and aerial duels and 15th for ball recoveries. Perhaps most tellingly, Solskjaer’s team are ranked 16th for presses per match. Cavani ranks 35.7 pressures per 90 minutes while Ronaldo is registering just 12.7 per 90 minutes.
Of course, a lot of these issues were apparent last season. Manchester United won a league-high 31 points from losing positions last season. That hints at how Solskjaer’s team have long had their defensive shortcomings masked by their strength at the other end of the pitch. This was never really a sustainable way to achieve results.
Publicly, Solskjaer has bemoaned a lack of fortune in United’s performances this season, but the underlying data suggests they are exactly where they deserve to be – they have conceded 15 times from an Expected Goals Conceded value of 14.23. In contrast to last season, Manchester United have lost five points from winning positions in just nine fixtures.
Individual brilliance took Solskjaer and his players to the brink of mounting a title challenge. Often, the final steps are the toughest ones to make. The margins are so narrow at the elite level that the most minor of flaws are exposed. It is somewhat problematic for Manchester United that their flaws are more than just minor.
A new manager might be able to fix some of the problems afflicting the Old Trafford outfit. However, there are imbalances in United’s squad that might take longer to address. Ronaldo’s signing has given Solskjaer, or whoever replaces him, a tactical wrinkle to iron out. What’s more, there is a deficiency in central midfield and a lack of leadership in defence. Just because there are a lot of pieces at Manchester United doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right pieces. Or that they will fit together.