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Solskjaer’s Manchester United: An elephant up a tree?

Manchester United fans have been on cloud nine seeing their side atop the league table for the past one week. The Red Devils sealed yet another comeback victory against Fulham, which means that they will remain top of the table at least till next Wednesday. Arch-rivals Manchester City are breathing down their neck. Guardiola’s side are only 2 points behind, having played a game less than United. With Leicester City sitting in the third spot with 38 points and Liverpool in fourth with 34 points; the title race is more intense than ever. Manchester United are leading the table at this stage of the competition, for the first time since club legend Sir Alex Ferguson retired. But can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer go all the way to win the league or is he an elephant up a tree?

The shambolic start:

Of all the English sides, Manchester United had the longest season, due to their exploits in the Europa League. Their pre-season preparations were hampered by the late conclusion of the season and many of their key players testing positive for Covid-19. The Maguire saga and Greenwood scandal had further deepened their problems. It was quite a frustrating period for the manager as well. Manchester United’s board progressed like a snail in securing transfer targets. The top priority Jadon Sancho deal collapsed, while Sergio Reguilon joined Spurs. United concluded the window by signing Cavani and Amad Diallo on deadline day. The Red Devils started the season with an unsettled team and were ripped apart by Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. Spurs humiliated them yet again at the Theatre of Dreams by scoring 6 goals. The United team were heavily criticized following the game, especially club captain Harry Maguire.

The Rise from the Ashes:

Since the shambolic defeat by Tottenham Hotspur, Solskjaer’s men have lost just one game in the next 16. The defeat came up against Arsenal at Old Trafford. But United still remain unbeaten away from home and have extended their impressive run to a whole calendar year. The record was expected to be shattered by Liverpool in the previous week at Anfield. The game apart from its historic relevance, was looked over by millions of football fans around the globe as one of the key games in the title race. Despite being reluctant to keep the ball, United created the best chances of the game, which they failed to finish.

The Fernandes-factor:

“I have always said that a single player cannot change a team. I was wrong.” – Dimitar Berbatov’s comment on Bruno Fernandes.Not just club legend Berbatov, but the whole footballing world now assume that Bruno Fernandes has single-handedly solved the ‘paradox of Manchester United’. With a tremendous tally of 11 goals and 7 assists in 19 League games, Bruno Fernandes is the nucleus of the club. Rather than being a lone wolf, Fernandes became the line which connected all the dots and helped the team function better. He creates for others and at the same time pops-up at some unusual areas in the box to score goals.

Most importantly, it is his mentality and leadership attributes that inspire the whole team. He sets standards and pushes his teammates to live up to it. This influence is well evident as one observes the gradual improvement of Paul Pogba. But the other side of the coin is, how far Manchester United can go depending solely on Bruno Fernandes? He has been used in 28 matches so far this season, out of which he has started as many as 24 games. The congested schedule is demanding too much physically from the players and it’s very important for United to keep Bruno always ready to rumble.

Do they really have the tenacity to win the league?

A good spell in the English top-flight is nothing new for Solskjaer as he had enjoyed a couple of good spells before. It is consistency that United are lacking under him. The inconsistency is even reflected in their character. They were considered as a deep-defending team last season, with an impressive defensive record. Whereas now, they are unstable defensively but are one of the best attacking sides in the league. Another attribute that Solskjaer’s system doesn’t possess is fluidity in their build-up play. United have committed silly mistakes while passing the ball in their own defensive third and have got punished multiple times for it. Even higher up the pitch, they are sluggish in moving the ball forward unless it is a counter-attack, which they are lightning-fast at.

The team is highly reliant on Bruno Fernandes for creating chances. There have seen multiple instances, as seen in the last two Manchester derbies and the home game against Arsenal, where Fernandes was restricted by his markers and United failed to score even a single goal. Though Cavani is living up to expectations, both Martial and Rashford are not being clinical and the pair makes awful decisions often in the attacking third. Absence of any attacking threats from the right flank is another problem that Solskjaer should solve. Only time will tell whether Amad Diallo could become the right piece of the jigsaw. United are also suffering from the absence of a capable holding midfielder. Solskjaer has to field both Fred and Mctominay in deeper roles; especially in big matches. This limits the number of creative midfielders they can commit forward. This could be one reason why Solskjaer is underperforming against big opposition, unlike last season.

Ultimately, what Manchester United need is the presence of some real footballing brains in their power centres. The business-oriented policies by Glazers and Co will only be a detrimental influence on the great footballing culture of the club. Anyhow, the millions of fans and Solskjaer have finally got their silver lining now. One should wait and see whether they will reclaim the lost throne.

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