Why Manchester United will still be looking to put out on-field fires, even if they win the Premier League
Given that it’s not exactly hard liquor, there’s really no need to chase away the taste of Casillero del Diablo, even if the name of the official wine of Manchester United translates to “The Devil’s Cellar”. As it happens, the former 20-time English league title-holders need chasers of a more tactical nature on the pitch, as they attempt to win the championship for the first time since 2013.
The burn, if you will, starts at the back. £80m signing Harry Maguire is a towering, composed central defender, but lacks the pace to compete with many of today’s strikers. Yet, because he remains United’s best overall defender, and captain, Maguire is manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first-choice in that position, meaning that to take the sting out of the taste, so to speak, Maguire’s most natural partner is the unpredictable but fleet-footed Eric Bailly. Injuries to the latter, however, have meant that much of that responsibility has fallen on Victor Lindelof, a competent technician and one-on-one defender who may be faster than Maguire, but is nowhere near as dominant.
Solskjaer’s midfield conundrum is equally as convoluted. His three best central midfield players are Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, and Donny van de Beek, all of whom prefer to control the game from closer to the opposition box than their own. Playing all three is to ask for defensive frailty, and is something Solskjaer has only contemplated for 67 minutes in the league cup, in a notable diamond formation. United’s best midfield ball-winner is Fred, the indefatigable Brazilian who subsequently loses possession like a one-armed juggler, and so it is imperative that anytime he plays, he is backed up by the steely Scott McTominay who, similarly, rarely plays as effectively outside of this combination.
If Fred and McTominay are an inseparable duo, and Solskjaer insists on playing with three up front, either Bruno Fernandes or Paul Pogba must sit it out (van de Beek, at this point, seems a player bought only for the perceived economy of the deal). Fernandes is undroppable, with 15 goals and 9 assists in 31 starts this season. In 2020 as a whole, he also created more than double the number of chances of his closest team-mate, Juan Mata. On the other hand, Pogba — who has often made it clear he wishes to leave the club — won the January 21 game against Fulham with a stunning left-foot strike, and has done likewise against West Ham and Burnley in the last 10 league games.
So far, that’s two sets of two players that have to be selected together in order to see their true worth, with another two arguably the most gifted players in the squad. But there’s more to consider: on the left flank, winger Marcus Rashford’s understanding with full-back Luke Shaw is as tight as Shaw and Anthony Martial’s is loose, meaning that this is the only combination worth choosing. How Aaron Wan-Bissaka could benefit from a close relationship with a hard-working, genuine right-winger, such as United tried to sign in Jadon Sancho last summer.
With last season’s top scorer Martial continuing to misfire in front of goal, notably failing to improve upon his eye for the short-range strike, Edinson Cavani has proven to be the centre-forward that United need, coming up with four goals and two assists in just four starting appearances. Cavani has also improved the shape of the team, his instincts meaning United are harder, meaner, and more cunning without the languid Martial.
With all of this in mind, and with Dean Henderson not having had the game time to yet unseat David De Gea in goal, it seems clear that the way forward for United is in a 4–2–2–2 formation or, at a stretch, a 4–1–2–1–2 diamond where McTominay and Pogba are nominal partners, though really playing in respective tandems with Fred and Fernandes. A variation on this system peaked against Leipzig in October 2020, then drastically failed against Arsenal three days later, only adding to the confusion regarding the best way forward.
Still, halfway through January 2021, Manchester United are at the top of the league, and do have options.
So far, at least, the chaser has given the liquor a far more pleasant aftertaste.
Brian Elliott has been a writer and editor for 15 years on the subjects of soccer, pro wrestling, mixed martial arts, and classic rock. For freelance enquiries, please email brian(at)hardcopy(dot)ie.