Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has experienced moments like this in his Manchester United managerial career before. Last season’s calamitous defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir, for instance, had many questioning whether the Norwegian could bring success to Old Trafford. A 2-0 home defeat to Burnley in January 2020 similarly pushed Solskjaer to the brink.
However, United have made a habit of responding to criticism under Solskjaer. The aforementioned defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir was followed by a four-match Premier League winning streak. After losing to Burnley in January 2020, Solskjaer’s side didn’t suffer another loss in the league all season.
Something feels different about this particular Manchester United slump, though. Saturday’s 4-2 defeat to Leicester City was damaging enough in terms of how it dropped Solskjaer’s team to fifth place in the Premier League table, four points off the top, but it also illustrated how United have stopped learning from past mistakes.
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Paul Pogba admitted it himself after full-time at the King Power Stadium. “To be honest we have been having those kinds of games for a long time and we haven’t found the problem. We have to find the problem,” the French midfielder told Sky Sports. “We need to be more mature and play with more experience, arrogance in a good way. We have to take the ball and play our football.”
Pogba was right in his assessment. Not for the first time this season, Manchester United were lacking in midfield. The balance of their team was all wrong as they struggled to control the match against a possession-hungry Leicester City side. Nemanja Matic was meant to give United balance and structure in the middle, but he was overwhelmed.
United also lacked width, something that congested their play in the opposition half. Jadon Sancho was signed to offer this on the right side, but was too quick to cut inside off the left against Leicester City. Rather than solving one of Solskjaer’s biggest problems, the England international has so far done more to exacerbate it.
It wasn’t until Marcus Rashford was introduced off the bench that the away side started to stretch the pitch from left to right, but while Solskjaer might have got this change right, his decision to withdraw goalscorer Mason Greenwood before the anonymous Cristiano Ronaldo and the error prone Bruno Fernandes confused.
Solskjaer admitted afterwards that he might have made a hasty call to start Harry Maguire following a spell out with injury - the central defender lacked sharpness and was at fault for Leicester City’s first two goals. “I pick the team, Harry Maguire showed no reaction and I hold my hand up if that does not work out,” he said. “If we concede four, I probably made a bad decision.”
For all Solskjaer’s flaws, which have been well documented over the last two years, he appeared to be learning on the job as a manager. While his mistakes cost United, he rarely made the same mistake more than once. Now, though, Solskjaer is demonstrating the same shortcomings over and over again.
Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes for Manchester United against Leicester City.
Image credit: Getty Images
His team have always struggled to break down opposition defences in a low block. The signing of Fernandes helped address this, but only to a certain extent - United are still largely reliant on moments of individual brilliance against well-drilled defensive units. If anything, Solskjaer’s team have regressed in this respect this season.
Substitutions have also been a problem in a number of matches this season, with Solskjaer’s ability to read a situation from the touchline placed under scrutiny. This will continue after the defeat to Leicester City which saw United fade, not grow, in the final phase of the game.
Despite the inevitable clamour that will now follow, Saturday’s loss probably won’t cost Solskjaer his job, but it could well be looked back on in retrospect as the moment he truly lost control as Manchester United manager. If the Norwegian is no longer learning from his mistakes, those mistakes will eventually cost him his job.
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