Michael Carrick’s reign as Manchester United interim manager got off to an excellent start following Tuesday’s impressive 2-0 Champions League win at Villarreal, but several questions still need answering for whoever is in the dugout for Sunday’s trip to Premier League leaders Chelsea…
Sunday 28th November 4:00pm
Kick off 4:30pm
De Gea still being overworked
Even in victory, many of Manchester United’s familiar problems were on show as Villarreal had the better chances for an hour on Tuesday, with David de Gea making two strong saves to deny Manu Trigueros.
Having absorbed plenty of pressure, the eventual clean sheet was only their third of the campaign after 26 matches. Carrick, or whoever the new interim head coach will be, knows his side cannot rely on De Gea’s exploits all the time.
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Such an approach is not sustainable and all the best teams do not call upon their goalkeeper with such regularity.
Defensive issues have been the primary issue behind this recent slump, but the fact that United won a league-high 31 points from losing positions last term suggests the attacking strengths have been propping defensive weaknesses for some time.
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United rank 17th in the Premier League with 21 goals conceded and are the most error-prone side in the division – along with Arsenal.
Interestingly, United are beginning to rank very poorly for points lost from winning positions, having ceded five already – which could be an indication that the tide is turning and the customary comebacks are waning.
Indeed, the failure to overturn results, and mistakes, are becoming increasingly prominent. United have made 11 errors leading to a shot against them in the Premier League this season – no other team have made more.
Man Utd errors leading to shots
|David de Gea||2|
But the graphic above suggests the majority of these errors occur down the left channel – an area which came under widespread criticism for the Liverpool defeat.
Drilling down deeper behind the leaky rearguard and mistakes, United show signs of deficiencies across a raft of defensive metrics – ranking bottom in the division for tackles and winning duels, 19th for interceptions and winning aerials and 15th for ball recoveries.
Sancho silver lining?
Carrick told Jadon Sancho he is in control of his own destiny after he got his first United goal.
Sancho has been slow to fire since his £73m move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer, but the goal capped the England forward’s best display yet for United.
“For Jadon it’s a massive boost,” Carrick said. “It’s a big goal for him, but it was about his performance overall. We know how much Jadon likes the ball at his feet, you see the smile on his face, but the pleasing thing for me was the effort and application he put in.
Manchester United caretaker boss Michael Carrick says Jadon Sancho will get a ‘massive boost’ from scoring his first goal for the club in their 2-0 Champions League win at Villarreal.
“At times he was not seeing a lot of the ball but he was always doing a job and playing a big part in the team’s performance. In the end you get your rewards and I’m delighted for him.
“I think Jadon epitomised the team performance. It’s up to Jadon now what happens next and how he kicks on. He’s got all the talent in the world and he’ll get all our support for sure.”
In addition to his attacking output against Villarreal, Sancho showed a willingness to track back and made four tackles during the match, more than any other team-mate. It is the type of extra protection in midfield Fred and Scott McTominay have struggled to provide this term.
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Time to involve the squad players
Manchester United's Donny van de Beek was handed a rare start at Villarreal
Sancho is not the only one whose season was in need of a reboot.
Solskjaer was a popular figure around the club but it is completely understandable that some of the players on the periphery of the squad would have been irked by their lack of involvement. Carrick has an opportunity to begin using them again.
One of the many problems for Solskjaer was that defeat to Young Boys in their opening Champions League game coupled with the elimination from the Carabao Cup left him with little room to rotate. That became an issue when the big names began to struggle.
Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek and Anthony Martial. They have been left undercooked when they should have been rotation options used to keep the squad fresh. There were signs of change in the selection against Villarreal.
Carrick appeared bemused by the line of questioning beforehand when asked about Bruno Fernandes’ omission. It is not newsworthy when Thomas Tuchel or Pep Guardiola use the squad. Perhaps this is the culture that United need to return to if they are to improve.
Ronaldo over-reliance remains a factor
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against Villarreal
According to Paul Merson, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford last summer threw Solskjaer’s United plan “out of the window” and the statistics (see below) support that view.
However, if he needed it, Carrick will have also been reminded of Ronaldo’s importance to the team at El Madrigal on Tuesday, or more specifically, the importance of his goals, even at the age of 36.
The interim manager opted to station Ronaldo on the left-hand side of a three-man forward line against Villarreal, albeit with a licence to roam, a tactic that worked to perfection with the forward going on to score the crucial opener 12 minutes from time.
“There’s not much more I can really say about Cristiano,” said Carrick after the game. “It’s what he does, in the big games and big moments when you need something he’s there to deliver. He’s got a cold and calculated mentality, he’s so calm, and doesn’t snatch at the chances.
“That’s what he’s been gifted with and he’s worked very hard at being as good as he is. I’m delighted to have him and not surprised he managed to come up with a goal.
“We started him off the left, with Anthony through the middle and the flexibility we have as a forward line, they chop and change positions, but wherever they ended up they defend with responsibility and with discipline and that made us a much stronger team. If you work well as a team and put the full package together you get your rewards.”
The Portugal forward’s breakthrough strike was the third time he has scored the match-winning goal in the final 15 minutes of a Champions League game this season, again underlining his importance to the team, but has it now become an over-reliance?
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Should Maguire still be captain?
Solskjaer surprised onlookers when he made Harry Maguire club captain five months into his time at the club in January 2020 when Ashley Young joined Inter Milan. But towards the end of his tenure, the Norwegian was having to field questions about the England defender’s leadership qualities with increasing regularity.
Recent reports indicate Maguire has not had the full backing of his team-mates when it comes to wearing the armband, and in fact resented his appointment so soon after arriving at the club. A lot of fans don’t feel like he’s the natural leader when you look at other personnel.
There is arguably three ahead of him through the spine of the team: De Gea, Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo. Scott McTominay is a future captain but right now possibly Maguire is ahead of him. His form has dipped dramatically since the European Championships alongside Luke Shaw, so he’s not alone.
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Maguire is stationed next to Shaw so it has felt contagious – bumping into each other twice recently, leading to a goal being conceded against Liverpool and they were fortunate not to concede another at Tottenham.
Fans have not been impressed by his post-match interviews – and his celebration when scoring for England against Albania was described by Roy Keane as “embarrassing” – before he was sent off in the 4-1 defeat at Watford for a ludicrous challenge when already on a yellow card, brandished seven minutes earlier.
His form will improve, and Carrick stuck by him during his first game as interim boss, but the question for the manager coming in until the end of the season remains whether Maguire should wear the armband. At present, it feels like being an unnecessary extra burden at a time when he must focus on returning to his usual high standards.
A good night for Fred
Fred produced a fine display against Villarreal
Carrick stuck with Fred and McTominay as the double pivot in midfield and it was the Brazilian who emerged with plenty of credit following the win in Spain.
It was Fred’s pressing which led to Ronaldo’s opener and the much-maligned midfielder also started the move which led to Sancho’s strike in the final minute of normal time.
“The defending and interception for the second goal, that’s what we’ve got in the team, being able to hit on the break,” Carrick said. “That’s always been in the DNA of the club, and that’s the players we’ve got.
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“We do try to press. Sometimes it hasn’t worked but the intention is to do it. Fred is one of the best at what we try to do. Cristiano finishes it off but Fred has done brilliantly.”
Speaking after the Manchester derby debacle, Keane savaged United’s display, saying it “felt worse [than the defeat to Liverpool],” and took aim at the midfield, adding: “I look for characters. Scott McTominay, who I know is learning his trade, Fred in midfield… these players are not good enough for Manchester United.”
Keane said he would “grab Ole and ask… why [he is] playing Fred?”, with the Sky Sports pundit highlighting the defensive midfield position as a major weakness.
This was a good start to the post-Ole era, however. Fred regained possession on 10 occasions against Villarreal, more than any other player on the pitch, and the tenacity he showed in pressing Etienne Capoue into a mistake is what he now has to provide on a more regular basis.
Get manager with fear factor
Manchester United caretaker manager Michael Carrick says their 2-0 win at Villarreal in his first game in charge is ‘not about him’ as United booked their place in the Champions League last 16.
In the aftermath of the win over Villarreal, former players Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand spoke about needing a manager that brings fear to the dressing room. When the side is disjointed, the players must feel the heat coming their way. For now, Carrick – a relic of the old regime – remains possibly too close to the group to be that authoritative voice.
In games where the side have not performed well, as United did even at the Madrigal on Tuesday, the players need to feel obliged to sprint down the tunnel for the manager’s half-time team talk.
You already get the impression Antonio Conte is bringing it to the group at Tottenham. Thomas Tuchel shifted the standards at Chelsea when replacing Frank Lampard; there is such clarity and the next appointment at United must not hark back to former glories.
There is a language barrier to varying degrees with Zinedine Zidane and Valverde but Mauricio Pochettino certainly commands respect. The same applies to Erik ten Hag, who claimed he is flattered by being linked to the Old Trafford post, and while both he and Pochettino remain focused on their current roles at Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax respectively.
United are still devising a cohesive plan with the best part of two-thirds of this season still to run, but holding out for either of those two until next summer could be worth the wait.
Man Utd’s upcoming fixtures
November 28: Chelsea (a) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports
December 2: Arsenal (h) – Premier League, kick-off 8.15pm
December 5: Crystal Palace (h) – Premier League, kick-off 2pm
December 8: Young Boys (h) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
Win £250,000 on Wednesday!
The Champions League returns, with the £250,000 Super 6 Jackpot up for grabs. Play for free, entries by 7.45pm