Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once again failed to take the obvious choice when it came to team selection, and paid the price as they exited the FA Cup.
Solskjaer has been criticised for his ineffective substitutes for most of his time at United, and his approach to team selection has been hard to fathom as well. His use of Bruno Fernandes is an excellent example of how he seems to haphazardly pick his teams.
When United needed to see out their first leg 4-0 advantage over Real Sociedad, he picked Fernandes from the start for the second match. United's very best player, their most crucial midfielder and perhaps the only man at the club who physically wants to win games, was left on the pitch for a pointless dead rubber. It made no sense, but is illustrative of the kind of nonsensical attitude that Solskjaer brings to picking his eleven for each game. Against West Ham, he decided that the best course of action was to make not one single substitution.
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For the game against Leicester, Fernandes was dropped to the bench and Donny van de Beek was given a rare start. In isolation, both those decisions make sense. Fernandes has played 44 times this season. Van der Beek could be eased in with a game away from the league. But in context, it was baffling. The time to rest Fernandes was, for example, against Sociedad, and the next time for him to rest would have been after the Leicester game and during the international break. Instead he waited until a knockout game against one of the best sides in the league and elected to weaken his side.
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After the match, Solskjaer said that: “We've got too many players that have played too many games and too many that haven't really had much football; Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba and others are trying to get in who haven't had enough football.”
Complaining about Van de Beek’s lack of game time is, frankly, rich. The player was wanted by Spurs and Real Madrid last summer, with plenty of other sides keen. Only the coronavirus and its impact on the financial security of other clubs meant that United could get hold of him. At the time, Woodward appeared to deserve kudos for finally pulling off one of his famous ‘opportunistic’ deals to deliver a top quality player at a bargain price.
And in reaction to that surprise gift, Solskjaer has barely let him feature. What he has done is let him know that does not trust him when it matters, despite everything he has achieved elsewhere. Instead, Fred, Scott McTominay and Pogba have all featured ahead of him despite their limitations.
Solskjaer also said, “I don't think I would do anything differently. What goes on behind the scenes isn't always known."
With Edinson Cavani often unavailable for selection, perhaps there is a sense of frustration about whether players are fully focused on the task at hand, but there is enough known by observers to question how Solskjaer is going about his job.
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At the same time, he worries that other players have featured too much while picking them for unimportant games or failing to make a single sub. Either Solskjaer is being disingenuous - and fair enough, that’s half the job of speaking in public as a football manager - or he is deluded. Given his bizarre and ham-fisted tactics in games, it is probably the latter. Any doubt on the matter should be eradicated by the rest of his CV, where he has only one impressive spell at Molde to be proud of, as well as a mediocre return to Norway after a disastrous time at Cardiff City.
Maybe Solskjaer will learn that he should alter his approach to the game, but at 48 years old he is now past the time when the best managers alight on an effective strategy. He is a perfectly able manager when it comes to keeping this squad happy, which is no small feat given what they have done with other coaches. But with his insistence on playing out from the back with cloggers like Fred, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, his tactical strategy seems to be that of an unthinking magpie, nicking shiny ideas, rather than a real tactician.
With most of the season played, Arsenal’s draw with West Ham, coupled with the easy run of games after the internationals, means that United will almost certainly secure Champions League football next season and get through to the Europa League semi-finals. At the start of the season that would have been a satisfactory return, but it appears that Solskajer’s tactical limitations will prevent the side from going any further next year.
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