In the end – as Paul Pogba missed an open goal but it didn’t even matter – the win over Newcastle was easy. Making it four wins in four for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is even easier. An FA Cup tie against Reading, lying 23rd in the Championship, looks a relatively straightforward way to make it five in a row as well.
However, the match against Newcastle was more puzzling than the result suggests. Christian Atsu’s flurry of chances in the opening period highlighted some defensive problems that a better team might have taken advantage of.
Same players, same problems
Phil Jones looked particularly shaky, in terms of his positioning and decisions. Nemanja Matic could be overrun in midfield — like he had been under Jose Mourinho. The full-backs? Not making things worse, but not making them much better either.
United’s attack also wasn’t firing. They were getting to the edge of the box regularly — although Newcastle defend so deeply that that’s not necessarily an achievement — but struggled to get further. The team completed 65 passes in the final third in the first half, the vast majority on the left-hand side of the pitch, but created only eight shots.
The old problems had resurfaced. With Paul Pogba more of an attacking than a central midfielder, United’s attack has tended to be heavily skewed on that side. Juan Mata, nominally a right-sided attacking midfielder, drifting centrally only compounds it.
It’s possible to turn this clumping of players into an advantage. To deal with Pogba and Anthony Martial, Newcastle regularly had five or six players defending a very small part of the pitch. With time on the training ground, you could develop strategies to exploit this, switching play quickly to the opposite flank.
However, the only player regularly attempting switches of play was Mata, from right to left.
Barring a goalkeeping error, United would have been level until the 80th minute too, and there’s an argument that Newcastle would have been less open if they were still defending a draw when Alexis Sanchez played Marcus Rashford in to score.
But, but, but…
But this has all been very negative. It’s not that United played badly, and in a lot of ways, for a lot of the match, they played quite well. And the three points are in the bag; three points that keep United just three points behind Arsenal and increase the distance to the chasing midtable pack to seven. Isn’t that all that matters?
On one hand, there are similar problems with individual players at team structure that have been present for years. On the other, there are players who look revitalised under Solskjaer, and the results keep coming.
The interim manager himself is certainly taking the positives.
“You’d be happy with four wins from four – we haven’t conceded from open play yet either,” he said post-match.
“We were slow in the first half but we controlled the game well, we concentrated and overall it was a very professional performance.”
It’s a strange one. The match against Tottenham on January 13 will be a real benchmark for where United are under Solskjaer. By that time, though, he’ll have been in the job for five matches and nearly a whole calendar month, which is a long time in football.
After four games, we’re still no closer to getting a really firm read on how much United have improved post-Mourinho. This matters, not just for the race for the Champions League, but for what United should be aiming to do in the January transfer window.
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If United had rolled over better teams than Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth (who are struggling of late) and Newcastle then the club hierarchy could get away with leaving things as they are. But if the team hasn’t actually improved that much, then spending in the winter window could be the thing that drastically improves the chances of reaching the top four.
It’s all very confusing. We just hope that Solskjaer himself has a better idea of where things stand than we do.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell