It has not been difficult to pinpoint Manchester United’s Achilles heel this season.
Whether it is being thumped 6-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur, drawing 3-3 in chaotic fashion against Everton, or the countless times they have had to fight back from a goal down, there are rightly question marks over the defence.
The amount you spend in the transfer market does not necessarily translate directly into results on the pitch, but the cases of the past two seasons under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are telling.
After splashing out £125million on Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire before the 2019/20 season, the Norwegian witnessed an immediate and marked improvement in United’s defensive displays. Then, in the rather more difficult summer of 2020, United spent less than £15million on one defensive player — who isn’t really very defensive at all — in Alex Telles.
Since then, their back line has slipped from being the ‘best of the rest’ outside Liverpool and Manchester City, to having almost the same record as relegation favourites Fulham, conceding 30 to the Cottagers’ 31 in this season’s Premier League.
The Hammers showed a criminal lack of ambition at Old Trafford, barely crossing the halfway line and never truly testing Dean Henderson, though whenever they did venture there was some panic in the United defence. Craig Dawson may have nicked it in regular time for West Ham, as United’s vulnerability from set-pieces was laid bare.
“That is a weakness of theirs and they have no chance of being a successful team unless this improves and improves massively,” said Shearer. “There’s just far too much space. As a forward, you would look forward to playing against Manchester United because you know you’re going to get chances because they’re all over the place.
“People pointing, not tracking runners, people not picking up in the box and people not closing down crosses and balls going into the box without any pressure on the ball to try and stop it and not working hard enough to stop that cross, to close that player down. “
Maguire has been a lightning rod for criticism of late, with much of it (unfairly) centring on the inflated fee that United paid for him. Whether you think Maguire is an £80million player or not, it’s always going to be difficult for the United captain to truly ‘justify’ that fee, unless he emulates what Virgil van Dijk did for Liverpool and inspires a title win.
Maguire’s partnership with Victor Lindelof is a more warranted talking point, and the debate is whether Eric Bailly, Axel Tuanzebe or a new centre-back signing would be more effective.
But the United skipper himself has seen improvement in the back line of late, as he insisted after keeping a 120-minute clean sheet against West Ham.
“It’s massive. I think we have six [clean sheets] in 10 games, if I’m right off the top of my head,” said Maguire. “When we’ve conceded, we’ve conceded too many, when we concede one it seems to be two. It was three against Everton. That’s not good enough for this club.
”We were disappointed at the weekend, we felt we deserved the three points but we couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We knew we had to come here tonight and bounce back and get that momentum back on our side ready for Sunday.”
MEN Sport reported earlier this week that United had identified central defence as a priority for the coming summer transfer window. The news will come as music to the ears of many fans who doubt the Maguire-Lindelof partnership, and who believe neither Bailly nor Tuanzebe can be relied upon.
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Manchester United beat West Ham 1-0 in the FA Cup, thanks to Scott McTominay’s extra-time winner.
United sealed a spot in the cup quarter-finals with victory over David Moyes’ side at Old Trafford, and now they travel to West Brom in the league on Sunday.
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United admire French centre-back duo Dayot Upamecano and Raphael Varane, though after spending so much on their defence under Solskjaer already, they may be loathed to break the bank this summer.
Jose Mourinho was denied a central defensive signing in the summer of 2018 when he had already spent more than £60million on two — Bailly and Lindelof.
Will the same rules apply to Solskjaer? Or will United take a more reactive (and probably more pragmatic) approach and give the United boss what is so clearly needed?
Backers of Mourinho may scream hypocrisy, but after Solskjaer missed out on Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish, two of his favoured transfer target last summer, perhaps he’s in a stronger position than his predecessor. The hope is that the pandemic will be less impactful on football clubs by June and July, and the time may be ripe for spending.
“I was crying for a central defender,” Mourinho said in September 2019, shortly after Maguire — one of his targets — had eventually moved to United.
Now, Solskjaer may be doing the same, but the outcome could be different.