Pressure piling upon Solskjaer as Rashford returns
Following a flying start to the 2021/22 season, Manchester United have hit a stern reality check with just two wins from their last six matches across all competitions.
If recent form persists, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may be able to count on one hand his remaining matchdays as manager of the Red Devils.
As Solskjaer approaches three years in charge at Old Trafford, Man United under the Norwegian are yet to establish an idiosyncratic on-field identity in terms of imposing their style of play and consistently asserting their dominance.
A recurring theme of late has seen very few if any of United's displays being comfortable viewing for adoring fans and club legends.
During the off-season Solskjaer, 48, agreed a new 3-year deal until the end of the 2023/24 season, and last month assistant manager Mike Phelan also signed an extension to 2024. As reported first by the Manchester Evening News, first-team coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna are in line to extend their stays at the Theatre of Dreams as part of Solskjaer’s coaching set-up.
While some argue the current league dynamic as being only two points off leaders Chelsea, others believe United have squandered the chance to be above the reigning champions of Europe after the Reds dropped points in successive Premier League games at home to Aston Villa and Everton.
United also exited the League Cup in the 3rd Round for the first time since 2018 as West Ham got the better of Solskjaer’s side at Old Trafford. Moreover, United got their European campaign off to a losing start in the Swiss capital, two weeks before they left it very late against Villarreal.
Solskjaer’s beloved midfield pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred have not fared as favourably as the gaffer would have liked, as United appear to have a gaping hole in the middle of the park.
Watching Liverpool vs Manchester City two weeks back as a neutral was an envious occasion with the last two Premier League winners each containing a holding midfielder with a defensive capacity, and with Man United in dire need of prompt improvement in its ailing engine room.
United have kept a solitary clean sheet after 10 matches this season – away to Wolves at end of August – meaning the club have failed to not concede in all of their last nine home games across the board. The most recent clean sheet at Old Trafford came on 15 April versus Granada in the Europa League quarter-final and prior to that against West Ham in March.
United have kept a total of five clean sheets at Old Trafford in 2021, including a 1-0 win over the Hammers in the FA Cup fourth round, and the 9-0 demolition of Southampton in early February.
In respect to their defensive record the Reds' fortunes realistically do not seem likely to change over the course of the next month, as United's next three home fixtures see the visits of Atalanta, Liverpool and Man City. Beyond this weekend's trek to Leicester, United are next on the road to North London for a test with Tottenham to see out October.
Solskjaer and United entered September joint-top of the PL table, and their first instalment after a frantic transfer window came against Newcastle Utd. Old Trafford had a peculiar buzz about it as Cristiano Ronaldo beckoned for his second debut in red. After a humdrum opening 45 minutes, homecoming hero Ronaldo poked home on the cusp of half-time – a close-range rebound after Magpies ‘keeper Freddie Woodman parried Mason Greenwood’s shot – 4,508 days after his last goal for the club in May 2009.
The Portuguese superstar doubled up in the second half with a left-footed strike through Woodman’s legs, before Fernandes’ long-range effort lit up the Stretford End and Lingard added the cherry on top in stoppage time, sinking Steve Bruce’s men.
F/T Man Utd 4-1 Newcastle
United were in fine form ahead of a trip to Bern, Switzerland for their UEFA Champions League opening match at BSC Young Boys.
After 35 minutes defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka was given his marching orders which ultimately set the tempo and the game plan for the remainder of Man Utd’s European opener. Young Boys equalised with 25 minutes of the tie remaining.
A sombre start to their continental campaign for United, after Lingard‘s astray pass to De Gea met American striker Jordan Siebatcheu who gave the reigning Swiss champions a winner in the dying minutes, leaving United bottom of Group F after the first matchday of the season.
F/T Young Boys 2-1 Man Utd
United looked to put an embarrassing defeat behind them as they paid a visit to the London Stadium for a date with West Ham. The encounter was highlighted by plain dreadful officiating as Ronaldo was controversially denied not one but two stonewall penalties by referee Martin Atkinson.
After receiving heaps of criticism for his substitutions in Switzerland, two of Solskjaer’s subs in East London – Lingard and Matić – combined in-play to gift the visitors a late advantage as the final whistle loomed. Lingard launched a fierce thunderbolt into Lukasz Fabianski’s top-left corner, crushing the hearts of Hammer fans who adored the 29-year-old during his loan spell earlier this year.
The controversy did not stop there, however, as the Irons were awarded a spot-kick of their own in added time. Club captain Mark Noble stepped onto the pitch for his first kick of the ball, but failed to convert from 12 yards as David de Gea's heroics secured the Reds all three points which they gracefully took back with them to Manchester.
F/T West Ham 1-2 Man Utd
Man Utd and West Ham met for the second time in four days, beginning a run of four home clashes on the bounce for United. Manuel Lanzini netted inside ten minutes which proved to be the only goal of the game which was enough to score David Moyes a rare victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
Notable mention amongst the home team was Anthony Martial, who very possibly put in his worst performance of his 6-year stint in Manchester.
F/T Man Utd 0-1 West Ham
Next up Aston Villa made the journey to the M16 as United were desperate for a commanding performance, but the result suggested far from it. The hosts were flaccid while Villa genuinely seemed to execute their game plan far more effectively than their opponents on the day, and Kourtney Hause put the Villains in front as full-time approached. United were awarded a late penalty but Bruno Fernandes rocketed the spot-kick into the Stretford End, yielding Villa their first victory at Old Trafford since December 2009 under Martin O'Neill.
F/T Man Utd 0-1 Aston Villa
From Villa to Villarreal, United met the Yellow Submarine 127 days after a truly devastating finale in the Europa League. Under the lights for a European night at a packed Old Trafford for the first time in moons, Ronaldo emerged for his 178th appearance in the Champions League. The 5-time Ballon d'Or winner is now the outright record-holder for appearances in UCL, surpassing former Real Madrid team-mate Iker Casillas.
Another up-and-down affair which United were lucky to not be behind at the break, were it not for De Gea saving Solskjaer's blushes. Without starting full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka (suspended) and Luke Shaw (illness), Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles deputised. Dalot was utterly rinsed by Arnaut Danjuma.
Villarreal led through Paco Alcacer but only for seven minutes before Alex struck a stupendous volley to draw United level. Ronaldo stole the show once more as the Portuguese marksman scored and sent the Stretford End into a frenzy in the 95th minute.
F/T Man Utd 2-1 Villarreal
By this point it is more than obvious that Solskjaer's men are battling to close out matches, with a crucial ingredient clearly devoid. Next to brace Old Trafford before a dreaded international break were an injury-plagued Everton outfit. Shaw and Wan-Bissaka were restored to the starting XI against the Toffees, whilst Martial and Cavani took the places of Ronaldo and Pogba.
Martial opened the scoring just before the interval and aside from that it was just another bang average opening 45 minutes for the home side. Andros Townsend restored parity for Rafa Benitez's men after Fred was easily shrugged off the ball by Demarai Gray in Everton's own half. Ronaldo, Pogba and Jadon Sancho were all introduced off the bench, but to no avail as the points were shared.
F/T Man Utd 1-1 Everton
Martial could possibly be on his way out from Old Trafford in the near future, with United believed to be in the market for a new marquee striker in summer 2022. Securing a permanent sale of the 25-year-old attacker would also boost United’s chances of acquiring a new world-class defensive midfielder.
Martial is essentially United’s fourth-choice centre-forward and the imminent return of Marcus Rashford could see the Frenchman drop even further down the pecking order.
Rashford, 23, is expected to be involved in United‘s visit to FA Cup holders Leicester City this weekend, four months after the English forward last represented his club in the Europa League Final – one of his least appeasing performances throughout his 6-year professional career.
While close friends Lingard and Sancho (and Shaw) embarked on national team duty with the Three Lions, Rashford continued to gain fitness and match sharpness ahead of his awaited return to action for United. Rashford is fit and raring to go after he scored twice in a behind-closed-doors friendly with Blackburn Rovers last week.
Last week Rashford was the incumbent of an honourary doctorate from the University of Manchester in recognition of his exemplary contributions off the field of play, specifically his ongoing charity work aiming to combat food poverty amongst children. As his 24th birthday nears, Rashford becomes the youngest recipient of an honourary degree from the institution.
Also missing out on England duty was United skipper Harry Maguire who picked up a calf injury in the home defeat to Villa towards the end of September. The England centre-half is a doubt to return in time to face his former team on Saturday as the Reds travel to the East Midlands. Raphaël Varane is ruled out of the fixture at the Foxes as he picked up a groin injury on international duty with France, as Les Bleus clinched the UEFA Nations League title.
The return of Rashford may see Pogba shifted from the left flank into central midfield, meanwhile the potential absence of both Maguire and Varane could mean Solskjaer will be forced to field a centre-back pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof at the King Power Stadium.
Whether or not Donny Van de Beek will receive more minutes remains to be seen, however the Dutch midfielder appears to be throwing his toys out his cot after twice being omitted from Louis van Gaal's national team. There has been a lot of noise surrounding Van de Beek in the media, with reports suggesting the ex-Ajax star could seek a move away from the club in 2022.
The pressure is by all means on Solskjaer and with a tough run of fixtures on the horizon, the question is whether the Norwegian will rise above it or sink right into it.