When Harry Maguire is good he is excellent and when bad he can be amateurish in a way the very best centre-halves never are. Think Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk or Manchester City’s Rúben Dias whose errors are collectors’ items and who are yet to be witnessed in farcical defensive mode when it really counts, as Maguire was in his calamitous outing against Liverpool on Sunday. In 7,164 minutes of Premier League play since joining in summer 2019 the (supposed) defensive linchpin has the highest error-leading-to-chance tally of Manchester United’s outfield players: seven. The maligned – and dropped for Raphaël Varane – Victor Lindelöf is not in the top four, and Maguire’s two mistakes leading to goals is again the most of any non-goalkeeper. Last term Maguire was a metronome of consistency. But this season he is back to the Maguire of his opening campaign: inconsistent on a consistent basis. Maybe Ole Gunnar Solskjær should consider that a match or two out of the XI would shake Maguire up.
Solskjær is an intelligent man who is surely undertaking serious soul searching regarding his management and what needs to change for him to reverse United’s slide. But: does he have the smarts – and time – to do so after the Liverpool trauma and with the team facing Tottenham, Atalanta and Manchester City in eight days from Saturday? The answer has to be yes, because if this challenge is not met then the Norwegian may soon be unemployed.
Kieran McKenna was Tottenham’s and Manchester United’s Under-18 head coach then had six months as assistant to José Mourinho. So the Northern Irishman was inexperienced when becoming Solskjær’s first-team coach in December 2018. In the three years he has had to prove himself of elite quality, McKenna has made an unwanted case for the opposite because there is scant discernible style in the play of United. Solskjær’s other coach, Michael Carrick, was a novice when joining Mourinho’s staff at the same time as McKenna. How much do Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani, Luke Shaw, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba et al believe in McKenna and Carrick? And if the issue is that McKenna and Carrick are circumscribed by Solskjær and his No 2, Mike Phelan, on match days, when they are rare visitors to the technical area, then does this point to a lack of faith in them? Maybe it is time for Solskjær to headhunt a hardened coach versed in drilling winning teams in domestic and continental football.
Whether Solskjær or someone else is in charge, United must break the bank. Yes, do it. Act. Forget the “transfers are tricky in January” mantra. It’s an excuse. Fernandes was signed in the 2020 winter window and is the side’s best player. When Liverpool continually punched through the United midfield of Scott McTominay and Fred on Sunday it was a scene repeated since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in May 2013. Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba are a few of the not-quite-good-enough midfielders signed since for the area where, arguably, most matches are won or lost. If McTominay can be United’s Rodri or Jordan Henderson – the holding player – a dynamic string-puller is required to complement him. Time to test whether the man who should have been bought in the summer – Declan Rice – can be tempted from West Ham.
The pair are twin personifications of the endless going-nowhere-fast of the post-Ferguson years. At 36 Cristiano Ronaldo cannot press like, say, even his 34-year-old teammate Edinson Cavani, which weakens what a modern side have to do and is the argument against the Portuguese. The for-him discourse – led by Solskjær – says Ronaldo is a prolific goalscorer – six in nine games – so is easily worth his place. Pogba’s critics wonder what his best position may be – midfield (no) or wide left (maybe) – and are sure he is too inconsistent. Yet the French World Cup winner is precisely what United have to have in the ranks, according to his supporters. All of this has to be sorted out by a manager whose view of Pogba – dropped recently, then brought on as a saviour – is particularly muddled. As is a lopsided squad that has a bulging forward coterie of Jadon Sancho – pursued for two summers by Solskjær but now sidelined – Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Cavani and Anthony Martial but is weak in defence and midfield. This is basic maths: a balanced choice of players is needed in all positions but that has been beyond the manager thus far.
Two seasons after Aaron Wan-Bissaka signed from Crystal Palace the right-back has not “trained on” as expected to become a potent attacking weapon from defence. In Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson and City’s Kyle Walker and João Cancelo, the division’s two best teams have a pair of total-football-playing full-backs with whom only United’s Luke Shaw can be bracketed. The finest full-backs are accomplished defenders who also maraud forward, drifting into pockets and creating goals, but Wan-Bissaka remains too one-dimensional for an elite side. Defensively the 23-year-old is excellent but Solskjær has to turn Wan-Bissaka into a force akin to the one he has made of Shaw. If Wan-Bissaka’s talent ceiling is too low a better option must be found.