On Tuesday, down 2-0 with three minutes left to play in regulation, Manchester United orchestrated a comeback for the first time under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Goals from Paul Pogba and Victor Lindelöf drew them level with Burnley and by the conclusion of the match, the Red Devils could still claim an unbeaten record with José Mourinho’s successor.
It was a test of perseverance under the Norwegian. For the first time, he found his side down a goal (and eventually another) under his watch. With the forthcoming slate of matches set to demonstrate United’s allegedly improved form in the coming weeks, perhaps it was best this setback occurred now so Solskjær can address inconsistencies in his starting XI.
Nonetheless, United’s draw against the Clarets cemented a minor concern: there is a serious lack of depth in the midfield.
When using the 4-3-3 formation, the expected midfield trio consists of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera. Solskjær employed a 4-1-4-1 set up on Tuesday, keeping Matić to play a more defensive role while Pogba was tasked with offensive responsibilities. Solskjær appeared to give Herrera a breather, using Andreas Pereira in favor of the Spaniard. Unfortunately, that decision would trigger more than enough backlash to bench the Brazilian international until further notice.
On a catastrophic mistake from Pereira, Jack Cork robbed possession from the 23-year-old, before teeing up Ashley Barnes, who rocketed the ball past David de Gea. It was a series of unfortunate events in such a short time frame, yet quickly revealed that Pereira still lacks match sharpness. Eventually, he was subbed off in favor of Jesse Lingard.
In a vulnerable moment such as conceding off an error, the match could have seriously used the talents of one Marouane Fellaini.
No player in recent United history has developed quite a division of opinion quite like Fellaini, and his impeding exit this month could unleash a bevy of cheers and jeers from the United fanbase.
Word is, the Belgian is set to complete a permanent move to Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng before the close of that league’s transfer window. That would come much to the chagrin of his supporters, who see the former Evertonian as en essential, albeit not always necessary boost in the middle.
Unfortunately, Fellaini was absent from Tuesday’s lineup due to a calf sprain he picked up in December.
Given his mission to reignite the famous attacking style that once made United the most fearful side in the Premier League, Solskjær’s intentions of offloading the 31 year-old are understandable. His notorious reputation comes from years of questionable decisions that have either resulted in conceded goals or inopportune bookings.
However, it’s also worth noting the stoppage time winners Fellaini has given the club the last five-and-a-half years. The most notable one that come to mind is this header against Arsenal in April 2018. Off a cross from Ashley Young, Fellaini was properly positioned inside Arsenal’s box to send the ball cleanly past keeper David Ospina. Not only did it relegate the Gunners to Europa League football the following season, but Arsene Wenger’s final match at the Theatre of Dreams as manager of Arsenal FC ended in a loss.
It’s likely his relocation to China could have been orchestrated last year, but instead his loyalty to José Mourinho resulted in a contract extension. A respectable characteristic, Fellaini’s allegiance belonged to the manager who supported him, if not necessarily to the fans who bemoaned his presence.
Fellaini’s exit poses a larger concern for Solskjær, nonetheless. Should one of his preferred three sustain an injury during this upcoming spell, how will the interim boss compensate? We’ve already discussed Pereira’s misfortune, which doesn't make him a first-team starter against the likes of domestic leaders Liverpool or reigning Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite agreeing to a contract extension to remain at Old Trafford last week, Scott McTominay has been noticeably absent from the first team since Solskjær took over. In fact the Scottish international has only seen one minute of Premier League action since Mourinho was sacked.
United bought Fred for £52 million from Shakhtar Donetsk last summer, but the Brazilian has started just three domestic matches in the last four months and failed to land on two of Solskjær’s eight matchday rosters.
Despite talks of Marouane Fellaini’s move to China being a done deal, it would have been in Ed Woodward’s best interest to retain him until this year’s summer transfer window, particularly so to have a veteran alongside Pogba and Matić as Manchester United continue their Champions League run. Because of both their strengths, critics and fans often times dismiss the holes in United’s midfield and focus their attention on the struggling defense. While the backline certainly needs more help, that’s a larger agenda item for the summer months. The midfield is undoubtedly an underrated concern, and Manchester United must address it before bidding adieu to an arguably clutch player.