Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Southampton on Saturday, meaning they have only won two of their last 13 games in all competitions. Nick Wright was at St Mary’s to see a performance which exposed the shortcomings in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad.
“We are on the right track.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer repeated the phrase more than once in his post-match press conference at St Mary’s. He was eager to emphasise that this is a period of transition for Manchester United, that he is building for the future, that patience is required. But how much short-term pain is too much? At what point does the long-term vision begin to feel too distant?
Solskjaer’s cheery demeanour suggests he is not worried yet, but the numbers are certainly troubling. United have taken just five points from their first four games of the season. They have only won two of their last 13 in all competitions. Solskjaer is not letting the pressure show, but his squad’s shortcomings become more obvious with every slip-up.
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Against Southampton on Saturday, the issues were familiar ones. United allowed their opponents too many chances, failed to take their own and lacked steel when they needed it. Until Kevin Danso’s sending off in the 73rd minute, it was Southampton, not United, who looked the more likely winners.
Experience and depth lacking
The lack of depth and experience is alarming. Solskjaer has shown a ruthless streak in recent months, moving on players who do not fit his plans without hesitation. But while few supporters will mourn the departures of Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku and the rest, the club’s failure to replace them is already proving costly.
United have chosen to place youth at the heart of things this season, and while it is an admirable policy, it is also true that young players need to be surrounded by experience and proven quality. The worry for United is that this squad does not contain enough of either.
On Saturday, their bench contained three academy graduates with a handful of senior appearances between them, and – in Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Marcos Rojo – three senior players either out of form or out of favour.
2:55 Highlights from Southampton's 1-1 draw with Manchester United in the Premier League
The problems are particularly pronounced in attack.
Sanchez and Lukaku’s exits have thrust Marcus Rashford into the spotlight, but for all his undoubted talent, the fact remains that he has never scored more than 13 goals in a season. It is asking a lot, then, to expect the 21-year-old to step up and lead the line on his own. Since his double against Chelsea in United’s opening game of the season, he has taken 12 shots without scoring. Against Southampton, he lacked composure in front of goal and frequently chose the wrong passes.
Solskjaer is understandably delighted by the impact of Daniel James – he described the Welshman as an “example to everyone” after he scored his third goal in four appearances for United on Saturday – but like any young player, he too will go through peaks and troughs. When his form does dip, can the enigmatic Anthony Martial be trusted to deliver instead?
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Because beyond that, United’s attacking options are limited to their next crop of academy graduates. Mason Greenwood has shown huge promise and came close to scoring following his introduction against Southampton, but he is still two months shy of his 18th birthday and even his greatest admirers would admit that he is not ready to play regularly.
It does not help, then, when Paul Pogba, one of the few players in the squad who does combine experience with proven quality, continues to veer between the brilliant and the baffling. Against Crystal Palace, it was his error that led to Patrick van Aanholt’s winner. Against Southampton, his creativity was overshadowed by more lapses of concentration.
The Frenchman, whose future has been the subject of speculation throughout the summer, seemed to struggle with the speed of the game right from the start. Inside the first two minutes, he was robbed by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in his own half. Soon after that, and under no pressure in midfield, he wildly over-hit a diagonal pass intended for James.
His most glaring mistakes, though, arrived shortly before half-time, when he ceded possession on three separate occasions in the space of little more than a minute – each time in his own half, each time inviting more Southampton pressure.
In between those moments of complacency, Pogba failed to make a single tackle or interception and only won one aerial duel. And yet, at the same time, he was central to most of United’s best attacking moments, creating more chances (four) than any other player on the pitch.