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23rd Aug 2021

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s biggest issue cost United dearly against Southampton

Patrick McCarry


United fans must have been thinking, ‘Here we go again’.

On the opening weekend of the Premier League season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made some big selection calls. Most paid off.

Mason Greenwood was the out-and-out forward, Dan James started on the right side of the front three and Bruno Fernandes played in a more advanced, No.10 role.

Inspired by Fernandes and assist-mad Paul Pogba, United handed out a 5-1 thumping to Leeds United. Greenwood looked to have carried his form from the end of last season into the new one and was very much at home as the leading man, up front. As good as Fernandes and Pogba were, the way Greenwood played against Leeds was the biggest source of encouragement for many United supporters.

One week on and Solskjaer could not resist with tinkering. The fixture list has been kind enough to many of the big Premier League teams this season. The clubs that have locked down Europa and Champions League slots are not playing midweek matches so, in theory, they can field their strongest XIs each weekend to start the league season off brightly.

Scott McTominay, we were told, was not 100% so he was replaced in the starting XI for the Southampton game by Nemanja Matic. The Serbian is still a tidy player but teaming him up with Fred, which Solskjaer did, always makes United more ponderous and predictable.

The other big team selection call was one that will have had plenty of United fans tearing their hair out. Dan James dropped out, Greenwood was switched to the right-hand side and Anthony Martial started up front.

Inter Milan were reportedly interested in buying Martial after Romelu Lukaku’s move to Chelsea moved ever closer. United wanted £50m, Inter were hoping for closer to £25m or another loan deal, such as the Alexis Sanchez one they sorted in 2020. As it stands, United look to be holding on to Martial while Marcus Rashford rehabs from his shoulder surgery.

If Martial is a player seeking to change minds at United and prove he is the main striker they can rely on, he certainly did not show it against Southampton. He had one header cleared off the line but was otherwise ineffectual and was often found drifting around in between the Saints’ box and the halfway line when he should have been making runs behind the defensive lines or haring into the box.

Romelu Lukaku, a player Solskjaer sold to Inter, showed how a centre forward is supposed to play, later that day, against Arsenal. The Belgian’s tap-in finish against the Gunners was all about strength, awareness and desire to get into scoring positions. Against Southampton, Martial was a faded facsimile of what a striker should be. He lasted 57 minutes before being replaced by Jadon Sancho.

By that stage, United were level at 1-1 after Greenwood had found the net again. They could have been 3-0 up after 12 minutes but contrived to miss three simple chances when Southampton, inexplicably, decided to switch off and not contest set-pieces.

One got the sense that they would be made pay for their early profligacy and so it proved when Southampton’s harrying led to Che Adams getting a strike away and the ball deflecting off the lazy, dangling leg of Fred and past David De Gea.

Che Adams’ shot comes off Fred for Southampton’s opener. (Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images)

Another United game in which they miss chances, go 1-0 down and finally wake up in the second half. That was the theme of their 2020/21 Premier League campaign and neither Solskjaer or his coaching staff have seemed to figure out how to sort it out.

With Sancho on, United reverted Greenwood back to centre forward and a winner looked inevitable as they besieged Southampton for the next 15 minutes. The Saints responded by bringing on Ibrahima Diallo and Kyle Walker-Peters and turned the tide. They had the better chances, late on, and De Gea saved Harry Maguire after the defender was badly caught in possession before Adam Armstrong was slipped through on goal.

Solskjaer’s telling substitution

Solskjaer’s last throw of the dice reflected a manager that does not trust several of his back-up players. With five minutes to go – another change made too late in the day – the United boss looked at his options and left both Juan Mata and Donny van de Beek on the bench. He brought on Jesse Lingard, who may not last the month at United, but fouls, injuries and poor play from both sides saw the last five and the six minutes of added time peter out.

Solskjaer has proven to be ruthless with players like Sanchez, Lukaku, Phil Jones and van de Beek, but he appears to have a blind-spot for the likes of Martial and Fred, who twice passed the ball straight out of play and had a dreadful game at St Mary’s.

One moment, late in the game, showed where Lingard now stands in the United pecking order. He received a pass from Luke Shaw, just inside the Southampton half, and was looking for options, further up the pitch.

From 15 yards away, Pogba jogged over to Lingard and took the ball from his feet. He then proceeded to spray a cross-field pass that was meant from Aaron Wan-Bissaka but was badly mis-hit and went out for a Southampton goal-kick.

Solskjaer has his core of trusted players but he is struggling to find that supporting cast that will turn these draws into wins, and step up with big contributions.

Until he gets that sorted, and stops going back to players that keep disappointing, United will not seriously challenge for titles.


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