Ronaldo’s winner fuels Solskjær myth but success seems as far away as ever | Jonathan Wilson

How much time does love buy you? That Manchester United fans want Ole Gunnar Solskjær to succeed is understandable. It’s not just that he scored vital goals, it’s that he embodied a golden age. Who would not want a returning hero to restore the club to glory? But wishful thinking will not organise a midfield.

The win will part the clouds a little. Solskjær has survived another mini-crisis, but each one leaves him slightly weaker. And this one comes with Cristiano Ronaldo. It may not be fair, given Ronaldo is 36 and, for all his goalscoring ability, increasingly an anachronism, but his signing has increased the pressure on the manager.

There is now an expectation of success and that seems as far away as ever. Three defeats in four games had reawakened the doubts. Defeat in the League Cup denies United one of the two trophies they might realistically have had a chance of winning. Defeat to Aston Villa in the Premier League highlighted the improbability of a title challenge. And defeat to Young Boys in the Champions League made what always looked a potentially tricky draw look distinctly awkward. A win over Villarreal eases the threat of Champions League elimination to an extent but the performance will have done nothing to soothe anxieties.

The complexity of the problems at the club have always offered an excuse: however justified the doubts about Solskjær, it must also be acknowledged that, despite a net spend of £0.5bn over the past five seasons, he has been working with an imbalanced squad; similarly it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a better manager might not get more out of this squad.

Whoever the manager is, though, the problem of the midfield is not going to go away – and is not helped by Ronaldo’s reluctance to press. There is a widely held view that Solskjær feels, at least against proactive sides, that he has to play two of Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic, but to do that means leaving out at least one of his big-name creative players. Although it is a structure that draws accusations of negativity, the statistics suggest United are better with Fred and McTominay in tandem.

With them, their win percentage is 62%, with 2.00 goals per game for and 0.93 against; without their win percentage is 52% with goals for 1.73 and against 1.15.

As against Villarreal in the Europa League final, though, Solskjær went with a midfield three of McTominay, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. When he has fielded a single natural holder in the league, United have been vulnerable.

They were extremely fortunate not to concede against Wolves, while a more composed side than Newcastle might have made more of a number of decent opportunities to break. It was after McTominay had been withdrawn on Saturday that Aston Villa scored their winner.

The problem in the Europa League final was less the lack of protection offered to the defence than the stodginess of United going forward. That seemed to highlight an issue more to do with management than with personnel: the lack of a coherent plan of attack with too much left to individual inspiration.

Jadon Sancho fluffs a good chance for his first Manchester United goal.
Jadon Sancho fluffs a good chance for his first Manchester United goal. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Jadon Sancho’s struggles to settle back in England, perhaps, can in part be attributed to the fact he has been used to a more structured approach. There was a slight change of approach here: rather than a 4-2-3-1, Pogba and Fernandes operated effectively as shuttlers either side and just in advance of McTominay.

But Villarreal, a team noted for their ability to sit in and dig out results, controlled the first half once the initial storm had blown out, pressing high and laying into an extremely rickety United. Protecting the defence was perhaps all the more important given three of Solskjær’s first-choice back four were absent.

Diogo Dalot, deputising for the suspended Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back, struggled against Arnaut Danjuma, whom Villarreal signed from Bournemouth for £21m in the summer. If Danjuma had been a more confident finisher and had Gerard Moreno been fit, this could have been a humiliation.

And that perhaps was the problem with the 4-3-3: with Fernandes pushing forward, there was no natural cover for Dalot. Solskjær, as so often, seemed frozen with indecision: there was no tweak – dropping Pogba deeper, pulling Mason Greenwood back, or having Victor Lindelöf cover behind him – to help Dalot out. When the opening goal finally arrived, eight minutes after the break, it would have surprised nobody it was created by a Danjuma run behind Dalot.

The equaliser was undeniably brilliant, but while a full-back volleying in from a free-kick may get you out of jail, it is hardly a sustainable long-term plan. And while the last-gasp winner will fuel the Solskjær myth, Villarreal could have been out of sight by then and had their own chances in the final 10 minutes. Any win will do at the moment for Solskjær, but this was a scramble against the side 11th in La Liga in which they had 12 shots to Villarreal’s 15.

So far this season, United have faced a string of opponents who have not been ruthless. They have, to a large extent, got away with their mistakes. But that, surely, cannot endure. Aside from a half against a Leeds side whose approach suits United, and 20 minutes late on against a beaten Newcastle, United have not played well this season. For long periods they have been unfeasibly open. Something, sooner rather than later, will have to give.


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