Manchester United’s first title challenge in eight years is in danger of petering out. Drawing against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns on Sunday leaves them seven points behind Manchester City, having played a game more. Most telling was the fact that failure to win stemmed from repetition of long-standing issues that have plagued the club during their post-Sir Alex Ferguson decline. It is now more apparent than ever than for Man Utd to push on, their defence is crying out for a partner for Harry Maguire.
The caveat to this campaign is that a push for the Premier League crown never appeared to be on the cards in the summer. Ole Gunner Solskjaer is taking a long-term view to his attempts to revive fortunes at Old Trafford, focusing first on reinstating the collective identity of the club which fed Ferguson’s success for so many years. He has built on a base of young, British-based players and taken them to the next level by recruiting the best available options from abroad.
Solskjaer’s version of Manchester United is more recognisable and relatable than anything produced by the men in charge during the interim of his and Ferguson’s reigns — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
It could even be argued that the year Mourinho’s side finished second in 2017/18, which never truly felt like a title campaign despite the high table position, had more expectation riding on it after the arrivals of Romelu Lukaku the previous summer and Alexis Sanchez in the January window.
However, the truth of the matter is that this season is also likely to be Solskjaer’s best chance of adding a league title to the haul of 20. While City are looking as strong as expected now, their early-season wobble cast doubt over Pep Guardiola and opened the door across town.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have dropped off in a completely unforeseen fashion lately, but logic dictates that a mini rebuild is all it will take for Jurgen Klopp’s men to reassert themselves, especially as the effects of COVID-19 begin to subside over time. The Red Devils were given a much better run at the big prize this season and, while they still cannot be counted out officially, there is a sense that they’ve missed an opportunity.
They lack a consistent goal threat if Edinson Cavani, who simply cannot be seen as a long-term solution at 33, isn’t firing. However, the primary issue for Man Utd is their defence, which has regularly held them back in recent years. Harry Maguire and his defensive partner, Victor Lindelof, came under fire in the immediate aftermath of the dropped points at West Brom, which followed a defeat at home to Sheffield United and a frustratingly open draw against Everton.
There are parallels between this side and Arsenal in the latter years of Arsene Wenger. Their ability going forward is unquestioned. Bruno Fernandes is their most consistent performer in years and can look unstoppable if Paul Pogba is playing at his best too, while Marcus Rashford is beginning to take responsibility. In terms of defence though, Man Utd can be found wanting when it matters.
Solskjaer has streamlined the squad and either sold or discarded a lot of the deadwood, which had proven an issue for his predecessors. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcus Rojo and Ashley Young were evidently short of the desired level for the first team but lingered for longer than they should have. Only Jones remains at the club but is no closer to the action than his former teammates.
Maguire was signed for £80million from Leicester City in 2019 and was expected to lead the back-line in a similar way to the man he usurped as the world’s most expensive defender, Virgil van Dijk, or Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte and, more recently, Ruben Dias.
However, the England defender has had a rough ride since moving to Manchester United. The pressure and scrutiny was always likely to be on a different level to anything he had previously experienced anyway, but the price tag and fact he took the captaincy upped the ante even further. As he found last summer, his personal affairs would become fair game, while every solid performance would be forgotten almost instantly and every blunder magnified and criticised. Perhaps that is unjust, but it was the same for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the peak of the last great Manchester United side’s powers, and it is the same for all of those named above.
The key difference is quality, and Maguire has never truly convinced that he is befitting of the very highest level. But the difficulty is, because he cost the kind of fee reserved for the elite, he is expected to perform as if he is. There is also a personality element here, too; Maguire does not hold himself as the kind of player capable of transcending the defence in the way Fernandes has further up the pitch, or Van Dijk and Dias have for their teams. Indeed, the impact upon Liverpool of van Dijk’s injury is self-evident.
Were Harry Maguire to partner a much stronger character in defence, a more experienced leader and play ‘second in command’, he may be able to settle into a better rhythm. Thiago Silva’s impact at Chelsea this season is another example of how the right player can completely alter the fortunes of a team.
Whether the right player exists or is attainable is another matter. The most obvious candidate is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, with the Senegal star linked with a move to Manchester United in the past and certainly having one big move left in him if the Italians cannot feed his ambitions. Raphael Varane is another, far less realistic possibility. Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt may only be 21, but is one that got away from his time at Ajax.
In truth, the name of the player is irrelevant at this stage. More prominent is the need to identify this problem; Harry Maguire is a defender who is good enough for Manchester United, but he needs help from a fitting partner. Gerard Pique is among the best defenders in the world, but it is no coincidence that he looked at his best alongside either Carles Puyol for Barcelona or Sergio Ramos for Spain. They need a defender with a different aura.
Instead of targeting Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish and adding to the imbalance in the squad next summer, Solskjaer should look at a more fundamental issue and remember that a house is better run with proper heating than a new sofa. If the Man Utd defence solidifies, his team will look much more convincing in their hunt for titles.
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