Paul Pogba had seen enough. So had many disgruntled Manchester United fans.
“We need to find something. We need to change something,” an exasperated Pogba said after United’s late collapse in a 4-2 loss at Leicester in the Premier League on Saturday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t disagree.
“We need to look at the whole set-up and balance of the team,” the United manager said, moments after Pogba’s outburst. “And maybe something has to give.”
It’s that time once again — it seems to happen on two or three occasions per season — when United appears on the verge of a crisis and Solskjaer, a club great without the managerial resume to go with it, is called out as someone unfit to be leading England’s biggest team.
The plain statistics are that United has won two of its last seven games in all competitions, has dropped to sixth place in the Premier League standings, and is already out of the English League Cup. Meanwhile, the team only isn’t in last place in its Champions League group because Cristiano Ronaldo scored a 95th-minute winner against Villarreal last month.
The season is young — United has only played 11 games — but key issues haven't been fixed: an imbalanced midfield, an attack relying on individualism over any coherent plan, sloppiness in defense.
There’s also a schedule that sees United face its hardest run of games so far. Back-to-back games against Atalanta in the Champions League — the first is on Wednesday at Old Trafford — come on either side of Premier League games against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City.
Solskjaer, who is approaching three years as United’s manager and has yet to win a trophy, has been here before.
The last time he was under this much heat was in December, after a loss to Leipzig that eliminated United from the Champions League. Solskjaer’s team didn’t lose any of its next 13 games.
In the 2019-20 season, a 1-0 loss at Newcastle in early October extended United’s winless run to five games and led to calls for Solskjaer to go. United drew 1-1 against Liverpool the next game, ending its fierce rival’s eight-match winning run to open the league, and then lost only two of its next 14 games.
Solskjaer came under more pressure following a 2-0 loss at home to Burnley in late January. United’s players were jeered by their own fans, yet responded by going on a 19-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
Can Solskjaer pull through again?
This is the department causing United the biggest problem, and the area Solskjaer probably regrets not strengthening in the offseason with a player like West Ham's Declan Rice.
United has three central midfielders — Nemanja Matic, Fred and Scott McTominay — who all have flaws and can't really be trusted to manage a game on their own as the deep-lying anchorman. Matic is too immobile, Fred too impetuous, and McTominay is too all-action to be restricted to just sitting in front of the defense. A feature of United’s games this season is the sight of the team getting counterattacked and the midfield getting easily bypassed.
Fred and McTominay have sometimes played as a pair and that might be what Solskjaer resorts to, giving United more energy and a better pressing game. That does, of course, mean Solskjaer has to drop a big-name player further forward.
More than five years into his second spell at Old Trafford and United still hasn't seen the best of Pogba.
It seems clear he cannot operate as one of the two deeper-lying midfielders because it affects United's pressing game, and Bruno Fernandes seems nailed in the No. 10 role behind the striker. Pogba might, then, be best suited playing on the left wing, where he can cut inside and get closer to United’s attackers.
But that leaves Solskjaer with just one available slot — the right wing — for four high-profile players: Mason Greenwood, $100 million offseason signing Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
Tellingly, United’s League Cup elimination deprives Solskjaer of a competition to give some potentially dissatisfied players on the fringe of the team — like Martial, Edinson Cavani, Donny van de Beek — some much-needed game time.
THE RONALDO PROBLEM
Ronaldo has scored five goals in six starts since returning to United. He is doing his job as a scorer — who could have expected otherwise? — but it’s how he is affecting the rest of the team that’s an underlying issue.
Ronaldo is 36 and his decreased mobility and ability to press from the front as United’s central striker looks to be impacting the players behind him. The tactic seems to be: Get the ball to Ronaldo and hope for the best. Sometimes that will work — see his stoppage-time winner against Villarreal, which came from a speculative cross into the area — but on many occasions it won’t.
United can be overran at times with Ronaldo as the striker and three attacking players behind him whose strength isn't tracking back. In that way, he is a solution but also a problem.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press