Solskjaer in the spotlight: Daunting 10 games could determine Man Utd future

By Sports Desk October 15, 2021

You wouldn't necessarily know it given some of the scrutiny, but things aren't going all that terribly at Manchester United.

With four wins and two draws from their first seven games of the Premier League season, they are just two points behind leaders Chelsea. It's a solid improvement from 2020-21, when, at the same stage of the campaign, they were four points worse off and with a negative goal difference.

Exiting the EFL Cup was frustrating, as was losing to Young Boys, but that last-gasp win over Villarreal means their Champions League fate remains firmly in their own hands. It also ensured their challenge for the two biggest trophies on offer are very much alive, and it's why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job is not currently under threat.

Their next 10 games could change that. It's very hard to predict United results and quality of performances from week to week, but their coming fixture list looks seriously daunting on paper. Before the end of November, they must face league visits to Leicester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, home games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, a Champions League double-header with Atalanta and a trip to Villarreal, LaLiga's only remaining unbeaten side.

Solskjaer could approach the third anniversary of his return to Old Trafford on the back of a buoyant run of results, with a renewed spring in his step ahead of the festive season. Alternatively, December may bring about a deafening clamour for a change of management, just as Jose Mourinho faced in 2018.

Hallowe'en season makes for scary reading

One thing that's marked Solskjaer's time in charge is a tendency to pull out big results when the pressure is on. He's lost just one of five league games against Pep Guardiola and is the only United manager to win all three of his first league visits to the Etihad Stadium. He is unbeaten in five against Chelsea and has been beaten just once by Tottenham.

With two wins in six matches before the international break, the Norwegian will need to summon something similar in the coming seven league fixtures. The trouble is, these games did not go according to plan last time.

United's next league fixtures are Leicester City away, Liverpool at home, Spurs away, Man City at home, Watford away, Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. Last season, the only one of those same games that resulted in a United victory was the trip to Spurs and the embattled Mourinho. Of course, Watford weren't in the top flight last season, but United's last visit to Vicarage Road in December 2019 ended in a miserable 2-0 defeat.

In the Champions League, Solskjaer's men face Atalanta at home and away before heading to Spain to play Villarreal. They edged out Unai Emery's side at home thanks to a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo goal at the end of a contest in which the visitors had 2.31 expected goals to United's 1.07 but were thwarted by goalkeeper David de Gea.

While that was an important result, it didn't gloss over wider concerns. United have kept only one clean sheet in 12 Champions League games under Solskjaer, losing seven of them in total. That's only one defeat less than predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho suffered in 30 matches combined in the competition.

In short, it would take a serious optimist to expect United to get through this run of matches in overwhelmingly positive fashion.

What's the plan, Ole?

But hang on: two points off the top, only one defeat... United's Premier League form isn't that bad, surely?

Well, it's certainly not awful. United have scored more open-play goals than anyone else this season (14) and conceded four, a figure bettered only by Man City (three), Brighton and Hove Albion (two) and leaders Chelsea (zero).

There is often criticism around United's perceived lack of control over games, but that is perhaps not as bad as some think. Only Man City (63.4 per cent) average more possession per game than United (60.7 per cent), while their tally of 55 open-play shots against is the same as Liverpool's and only five down on Chelsea. Indeed, their expected goals against figure in open play (5.5) is slightly lower than that of Jurgen Klopp's men (5.9).

The problem is, as injury-time Ronaldo goals and De Gea penalty saves will tell you, United are treading a fine line between success and disappointment.

Those league-high 14 open-play goals came from 86 shots, a figure only bettered by Man City (94) and Liverpool (97), but one worth just 7.9 expected goals. That differential of 6.1 between goals scored and xG is by far the biggest in the league, and will almost certainly begin to level off at some stage.

That xG figure is in spite of United registering 1,256 passes ending in the final third, a tally only beaten by Man City (1,340). They also rank just fifth for passes into the box (234) and are well behind Liverpool (270) and Man City (273) for touches in the opponents' penalty area (206). Despite having lots of the ball, those clear-cut chances are scarce.

That relatively high possession figure apparently doesn't offer the security at the back that it should, either. But United have still faced 77 shots this season and are on an 11-game run without a clean sheet at home, their worst such sequence since 1964. Champions City, meanwhile, use keeping the ball as their first line of defence: they have only faced 42 shots, just 10 of which have been on target compared to United's 24.

At least United can't generally be accused of a want of trying. There are only two teams – Southampton (997) and Leeds United (1,210) – who have tallied more team sprints than United (991), which is impressive given the length of time they keep the ball rather than scurrying around trying to win it back.

Plus, only Liverpool (147) and Man City (127) have attempted more shots overall than United (120), while there are four United players among the top 18 in the division for attempts at goal this season. Those four – Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba – have also created 50 goalscoring chances between them. In fact, Fernandes leads the league when it comes to shots attempted and chances created combined.

Solskjaer's ethos, it seems, continues to be based on individual inspiration: put enough talented attackers on the pitch, and, more often than not, they'll do enough to win you a game. But that tactic did not work against Everton, or Aston Villa, or Young Boys, or Southampton. Will it be enough against the rest of the 'big six' between now and December?

Will it be enough, indeed, to keep the wolves from Solskjaer's door?

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