Crisis, what crisis? Manchester United’s season is delicately balanced right now, somewhere between that another crisis and a position in which you would deem acceptable for a club of their size. That is not a place that suits the agenda of many, however.
At the start of last season, for example, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was under intense scrutiny and in the midst of a catastrophe, with two league wins from the first nine. After lockdown everything was rosy in the Old Trafford garden. A middle ground is neither here nor there.
And the truth is somewhere in between: United’s upcoming league games against Arsenal and Everton will determine which way the pendulum swings.
It was refreshing to hear two of football’s more considered minds talk without hyperbole about United on Monday evening. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have developed into the most respected football voices on television for that reason and neither went overboard on the Donny van de Beek situation.
The flak Solskjaer has received on his decision to leave the Dutchman out of five Premier League starting 11s has been excessive. This is a new signing, still acclimatising to English football and the season is only a few games old. Van de Beek has impressed as a substitute, yes, but plenty of other Premier League managers have taken the cautious approach to integrating new additions. Jurgen Klopp was heralded for the way he slowly introduced Fabinho, Naby Keita and others into his Liverpool side.
Nevile and Carragher were wise to focus more on Paul Pogba, a player still posing questions more than four years on from his £89million transfer. Why is Pogba still an issue for United? What’s his best role? What does his future hold?
Neville insisted his old teammate Solskjaer was completely justified in his recent midfield selections, which have seen Fred and McTominay selected ahead of Pogba and Van de Beek. For Neville, the selections reflected the Norwegian’s desire to add solidity to his line-up, which had been severely lacking in damaging defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham.
“The big difference is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone back to what served him well last season – that ‘box’ of [Victor] Lindelof, [Harry] Maguire, Fred and McTominay,” said Neville.
“They’ve all got a defensive mindset, are all quick at getting to the ball, so every time Manchester United attacked and the ball broke out to Chelsea’s midfield, they were all over them like a rash.”
The formula, with Fred and McTominay at the base of midfield, has yielded two wins and a draw inside a week for United. The only goals they have conceded have been two unfortunate own goals. So while the 0-0 draw with Chelsea left many feeling unfulfilled, Neville is right to claim Solskjaer has been vindicated.
“You look at those two, how aggressive they are. They’re on to things, they’re quick to the ball, quick to react and they recycle it and try to play out.
“For me, Ole has almost in some ways thought: ‘I need to go back to basics. I can’t keep conceding chances’.
“He’s got the issue in the stands of Van de Beek and Pogba – but he has gone back to basics and it has meant they are more difficult to play against and are conceding less goals and chances.”
Neville also highlighted ‘a massive mentality shift’ since the two home defeats and it is no surprise the changes in tactics and personnel have precipitated that. Fred and McTominay aren’t necessarily the most eye-catching midfield duo, but they are trusted lieutenants of Solskjaer and have seldom let him down.
Pogba spoke openly about wanting to join Real Madrid less than three weeks ago. His commitment to United is dubious, at best. Van de Beek may well adapt to a role in Solskjaer’s side, but he is still learning the ropes.
So with significant games against RB Leipzig, Arsenal and Everton on the horizon, don’t expect Solskjaer to yield to the demands of supporters anytime soon. He has received all the justification he needed.