The first doubts began in late January that something was somewhat amiss in the new look, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer inspired, Manchester United. Failure to beat Burnley at home, while at the same time rallying to maintain an unbeaten start to Solskjaer’s reign as Manchester United manager was the first indication that the ghosts of Mourinho were not entirely put to bed.
In Solskjaer’s earliest games as United manager, the team was infused with intensity, speed and hunger; the largely psychological traits which had been missing from Mourinho’s Manchester United. Solskjaer brought that from the get-go and turned underperforming mercenaries into would-be world beaters.
He appeared to have the Midas touch.
Burnley was the first indication that Solskjaer’s revolution might take a different turn. United then failed to turn up for their home game against Paris Saint-Germain and were largely outclassed, though the gulf in class could in some ways be attributed to the difference in midfield quality of the two sides.
Fast forward two months and the Burnley and PSG games have been repeated time and time again. Against Watford, Southampton and West Ham, Manchester United were lucky to win after failing to dominate on the field. They were punished for insipid performances against Wolves – twice – and Arsenal.
In trying to find an origin of the problem, you have to question a few different elements. Was Solskjaer’s success merely the result of an extended new manager bounce? Have the players seen through the methods that failed to work at Cardiff? Has Paul Pogba thrown down his tools again after decided he wants to move to Madrid? Where has Manchester United’s midfield gone?
It should be acknowledged that not every element of Manchester United’s team or play has been maligned in the past two months but the midfield has notably disappeared. Manchester United have failed to control games, or punish opposition defences in much the same manner as they did when Solskjaer arrived and ‘took the hand brake off.’
The manner in which OGS turned Manchester United into a winning team has not been found out, nor has Solskjaer suddenly become a bad manager. Whether Pogba’s head has been turned is another issue. Fans might have been concerned about a distinct lack of celebration – compared to normal – following both goals against West Ham but that might also be attributed to disappointment in his own play. For all intents and purposes, it appears Pogba will be at Manchester United next season.
Yet why have Manchester United stopped steam rolling teams like they did in December and January?
Perhaps there is something else at play. Before José Mourinho’s sacking in December, Manchester United were being criticised for a lack of work rate, demonstrated plainly by a lack of in-game running. Manchester United failed to either outrun or out-sprint their opponents in their first thirteen league games of the season. They ranked 16th for distance covered per game and 18th for sprints per game.
Miguel Delaney of The Independent has posited that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has targeted fitness as a key objective for the Manchester United side in the summer. Changing the squads’ approach to fitness while improving their overall cardiovascular fitness towards a more physical, high intensity game will become the objective of Solskjaer and his coaching team as they eye long term success in the league.
Tottenham Hotspur’s collapse in the 2015-16 Premier League season was attributed to their devotion to an intense playing style early in the year which affected them as the season reached its conclusion. Similarly, Liverpool have adapted their pressing methods in recent seasons to allow for a 60+ game season.
Are the Manchester United players simply worn out?
It should also be allowed that many of Manchester United’s players – such as Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and the English players – were in contention in the World Cup for the duration of the tournament and it is not illogical that they would be feeling the effects of not having had a substantial break in almost two years.
Players who have slumped badly in the past two months, notably Pogba and Ashley Young, may simply be physically jaded. Young played five games during the World Cup, Pogba played eight games between Manchester United losing the FA Cup Final to Chelsea and the World Cup Final on 15 July. He then played in Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Leicester on 10 August while Young returned a week later against Brighton.
That Manchester United’s players have suddenly run out of steam as the league reaches its conclusion will concern fans greatly, but it is an indictment of the former regime more so than that of the current. It is a palatable concern for supporters regarding United’s slump and one which will keep faith in Solskjaer and his management team, and one which will carry their optimism into next season, hoping that things can be great once again.