Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a serious dilemma: one holding midfielder or two?
Opt for one and risk Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof being ruthlessly exposed, opt for two and wave goodbye to any creativity in the middle. It’s a balancing act that threatens to define his reign at Old Trafford – even if a solution appeared to present itself in the on Tuesday night.
First, let’s focus on the positives. Donny van de Beek had a huge game in midfield alongside Fred, not only with his unflashy one-touch passing but also the occasional tackle. His understanding with Bruno Fernandes, whose howitzer opening the scoring, was a huge bonus with the pair complementing, not hindering, one another.
“Today he justified why he’s been brought to the club, he’s the one player who’s happy playing one touch, two touch and keeping it simple,” purred Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport. “He will sacrifice his own game to make others flourish and helps others to perform better like Bruno today.”
Edinson Cavani was also brilliant: holding up the ball, rarely squandering possession and looking less and less likely to go down the Falcao path with each passing game. By occupying the No.9 role, Anthony Martial returned to a more familiar spot on the flank – a role he is surely more suited to, even if this game largely passed him by.
But we can’t pretend this victory was all of United’s own making. Basaksehir, who staged a major coup earlier this month, were terrible. Even before Fernandes had rifled home the opener, they were all over the place. Within 90 seconds, United had carved through them, a tasty flick from Fernandes allowing Marcus Rashford to steamroll into their penalty area. Simple passes and runs were sucking the defence all over the place, with their backline resembling an unruly zigzag as the game wore on.
While they were iffy in defence, they still created chances. Demba Ba ruffled up the United defence, while Edin Visca kept worming his way into promising positions. Daniel James’ late strike may have created an emphatic scoreline but the truth is they were hanging on for the final 15 minutes after Deniz Turuc’s free-kick snuck over the line. The United defence was repeatedly exposed, with the Fred-Van de Beek axis not exactly providing perfect protection.
Deniz Turuc of Medipol Basaksehir in action against Donny van de Beek (34
Image credit: Getty Images
So back to Solskjaer’s predicament. Against teams that are considerably weaker, à la Basaksehir, one holding midfielder is a sensible ploy. Against teams that are considerably stronger, à la PSG, two midfielders is the obvious option – with United knowing they can fall back on their trusted counter-attack in matches without much possession. But what about all the teams in the middle, the teams United seem to struggle against the most?
The answer is probably already in their ranks, although United fans are probably tired of the experiment by now. So much has been written about Paul Pogba, including by this observer, but he remains the obvious link between defence and attack – especially if he can play a similar role to that in France, that of simplicity and efficiency. That might mean no Van de Beek and on nights like this that looks a ridiculous call. But the fact remains that United’s defence needs protection, something an on-song Pogba can provide, and pretending the problem doesn’t exist after wins against middling opposition isn’t exactly helpful.
Until then, we can expect United to lurch from title contenders to relegation fodder. Solskjaer could also dip into the transfer window to fix his shaky defence, freeing up Van de Beek to play in a midfield two, but as we’ve seen before with Ed Woodward, what United want, and what United get, doesn’t always correlate.