Much of the discussion post-game was about the lack of transfers and a pre-season. There’s definitely some weight to these arguments. A pre-season would’ve allowed the coaching staff to experiment with new formations, integrate players (we hope) and give the players some important minutes for match sharpness.
Despite the loss to Sevilla in the Europa League semi-finals, United were still riding on a high and the expectations in the transfer window were closer to what we’ve witnessed in West London. With little to get excited about, there can be a stultifying sensation seeping its way into the atmosphere around the club.
You only need to look at van de Beek’s goal. There wasn’t a lot of method in the passage of play that led to the goal, but Palace weren’t prepared for what van de Beek offers. He provided a moment of brilliance.
Last season, Daniel James made a great start to his United career in a similar fashion. The opposition aren’t familiar with these new additions and the element of surprise can get you some valuable points till you get the house in order.
These factors could’ve accumulated to the display against Palace but this is an excuse that a club like United has never been able to afford, and the criticism post-game was scathing — and maybe some of it was warranted.
Some of these were from sections of the media who have had some sense of antipathy towards Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment from the very beginning. They were preening themselves and pinned down the loss as emblematic of his reign. The win percentage stat isn’t as useful anymore, unfortunately for them. A first league loss in 9 months showcased just how starved the vultures were.
There’s a case to be made that the media derives its narratives from some degree of sensationalism. Solskjaer’s managerial reign isn’t conducive to that. His responses are never performative. When asked a question about Sevilla’s unbeaten run in the pre-match press conference for the Europa League semi-finals and what Solskjaer had to do to beat them, Solskjaer’s response was simple: “Score more goals than them.”
There’s no dogmatic philosophy with Solskjaer that we see with Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. There’s no abhorrence for them either like we see with José Mourinho. It’s why Zinedine Zidane, despite his formidable record, is also not a media favourite.
Such coverage undersells Zidane’s achievements in the same manner that it undersells what Solskjaer has done since taking the hot seat at Old Trafford. However, Solskjaer did himself no favours last week.
His confounding team selection wasn’t the only issue. Not to mention, it was also a little disrespectful to Palace, who have a fantastic record at Old Trafford in the recent past.
It’s important to have squad players like James and Scott McTominay but it’s unfair on the players when you don’t provide them with the conditions to maximize their output.
James looks far more comfortable on the left and the same goes for McTominay when he has the license to get aggressive in a more advanced position. Brandon Williams likes to cut inside and often played with Tahith Chong on that wing for the youth sides – who kept the width.
There’s a considerable sample size from last season to have derived what the strengths and weaknesses of all these players were and what combinations work best.
Last season, it being his first full season as manager, gave Solskjaer the chance to allow everyone a clean slate. Participation in the Europa League also meant that he could adopt a trial and error approach without fatal consequences due to the strength of the opposition. Persisting with the same approach will be met with punishment this season.
The loss to Palace wasn’t just concerning because it seemed like the weaknesses of every player were on display. Taking Dan James off after 45 minutes demands the question of why he started to begin with. It definitely doesn’t help the player’s confidence.
If Solskjaer doesn’t think his star men in Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are ideal for some games due to the frequency of turnovers — especially without Nemanja Matić available — then he has to make the tough decisions to sacrifice one of them.
If we are to believe all the reports, Solskjaer also has a big say in transfers and there’s no reason to believe that the figures in charge of recruitment aren’t in conjunction with Solskjaer’s own vision. Some defenders of the manager might allude to Solskjaer cowing to the infamous board’s wishes, but the evidence so far is to the contrary.
A strategy to address depth is something United should definitely adopt but there are gaping holes in the first-team. Donny van de Beek’s versatility will mean that he can fulfill many roles, and a signing like Jadon Sancho would be a fantastic coup. But Sancho the player — especially with his valuation — are ideal as the icing on the cake. This cake isn’t complete yet.
It was clear in the game against Palace that a Matić injury makes this side very vulnerable in midfield. A vulnerable midfield affects every other area of the pitch.
Champions League qualification dictated that United start playing like a team with greater authority, and a strong midfield goes a long way to achieving that. Scott McTominay, for all his endeavour, couldn’t hold the midfield against Crystal Palace, nevermind Bayern Munich.
Solskjaer’s loyalty to Victor Lindelöf and David De Gea has been admirable but this is something he has to diffuse before more points are lost and United are in the midst of another spiraling season that needs rescuing.
He has to prove this season that he’s more than a leader during times of crisis. The skills required during times of crisis are very different from those in times of stability.
Solskjaer has reduced the average age of the squad (the youngest in the league), got the side into the Champions League, and proven that his side can go toe to toe with any of the big boys on a given day. He’s effectively managed the transition and was judged accordingly, despite some circles of the media believing that Manchester United were too big to allow for a transitional manager.
He will be judged very differently now and won’t be given the benefit of doubt as often. He has to prove that he’s now capable of taking it up another level. The Premier League with all its new additions is as strong as it has ever been in terms of quality.
Promoted sides are holding their own against defending champions and established stars are joining sides that don’t offer Champions League football.
The last 4 seasons have seen the winning side get a minimum of 93 points. The margin for error is at an all-time low. A loss should ideally help regain perspective and the win in midweek will be a welcome boost.
The aim should be to go on a run again. United can’t rest on their laurels and play with the entitlement from last week. There’s already a lot on stake against Brighton and we’re only in Gameweek 2.