At various points during the early stages of this Premier League season, Manchester City and Manchester United had their defensive capabilities called into question by television pundits.

As soon as the opening weekend 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, in fact, Gary Neville emptied a bucket of cold water upon transfer speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Speaking on Sky Sports, the former England and United defender gave a damning assessment of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof's centre-back capabilities

"You can talk about Jadon Sancho all you like, but until they get a centre-back in that can run and defend one on one, you're never going to win the league," he said.

A weekend later, City were hammered 5-2 at home to Leicester City – a result that immediately preceded the club-record arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica.

The Portugal international's debut came in a harum-scarum 1-1 draw at Leeds United, after which beIN Sports' anchor Richard Keys offered a more radical solution to Pep Guardiola.

"It can't be that hard, he could go and watch Roy Hodgson work. Or he could bring Sam Allardyce in on a temporary basis."

Things have changed a little since then. City head into Sunday's top-of-the-table clash 14 points clear of United in second and aiming to extend a 21-match winning run across all competitions.

Central to that, and untouched by the hand of Allardyce, is a water-tight defence and the supreme alliance formed by Dias and a rejuvenated John Stones.

Silk and steel

In the 14 Premier League games Dias and Stones have started in tandem, City boast 13 wins and a draw, keeping 11 clean sheets

Goals for each man in last weekend's 2-1 win over West Ham mean they are responsible for four goals at the other end during these matches – one more than the three they have conceded overall.

In his debut Premier League season, Dias boasts a win percentage of 75 per cent thanks to 18 victories from 24 matches.

Stones' own win rate leaps to a frankly absurd 94 per cent, finishing on the winning side in 15 of his 16 Premier League outings in 2020-21. Guardiola's men have only conceded four times with him on the pitch.

Though Keys opined that Guardiola might have been sacked for his "reckless" spending before settling upon Dias, acclaim for the Catalan tactician and his first-choice central defenders has otherwise been close to universal.

Over on the red side of Manchester, however, Neville still isn't happy.

Drawing blanks and protecting keepers

Despite being the centre-back pairing in each of United's five 0-0 Premier League draws in "big six" encounters this season, last month Neville described Lindelof and Maguire as a "problem" to one another on account of their individual attributes.

Demanding defensive changes for a team who have just run up three consecutive goalless draws in all competitions might, on the face of it, look like a fairly off-target conclusion.

However, outside of those matches that were as high on anticipation as they proved low on goals, another picture emerges.

In 20 Premier League games together, Lindelof and Maguire have seven clean sheets this term – only two outside of big-six encounters. United have won half of those games, drawing eight and losing two, leaving them way down on City's 92.9 per cent success rate when Dias and Stones start together.

Overall, United have conceded nearly double the amount City have let in across the Premier League season, with 32 set against 17.

Expected goals on target (xGOT) numbers collected by Opta – figures that illustrate the overall quality of chances faced  - show City's first-choice goalkeeper Ederson is better protected by his defence than United number one David de Gea.

Ederson has conceded 15 times and has an xGOT of 18.61, meaning he has conceded fewer goals than expected, something that cannot be said for De Gea, who will sit out the weekend game after returning home for the birth of his child.

An xGOT figure of 25.9 is outstripped by the 27 the Spain international has let in. Although his negative goals prevented score of 1.1 does Maguire, Lindelof and those others in front of him a slight disservice, he is being given more taxing work to get through than Ederson.

Building from the back

It is not the case that Stones and Dias are flying into numerous last-ditch challenges to spare their goalkeeper, much as they appear to relish that work when it arrives.

A chunk of their value to Guardiola stems from how they are each able to get City swiftly back on the front foot.

Every 90 minutes, Dias averages 16.3 progressive carries, with Stones on 14.7. On this metric, despite his noted ability with the ball at his feet, Maguire tallies 11.8, with Lindelof down on 9.8.

Building play from the back is another non-negotiable for Guardiola's defensive players and City's 161 build-up attacks – open play sequences featuring 10 or more passes that end in a shot or a touch in the opposition penalty area - are the most in the Premier League this season.

Despite the apparent risk they run of playing themselves into trouble, 120 high turnovers against and 14 shot-ending high turnovers are once again the best results in the division.

By contrast, United have conceded 35 shots from high turnovers – the second-worst in the league – from 205 such instances. Solskjaer's men have attempted 91 build-up attacks, suggesting his team create too many problems for themselves.

Stones and Dias have managed their shutouts compilation despite City having the highest defensive line in the Premier League, starting attacks an average of 45.2 metres from their own goal. United's 42.9m is third behind Liverpool, although the lack of pace Neville has highlighted in Solskjaer's first-choice pairing might be encouraging a measure of caution.

Even if Maguire and Lindelof are able to wheel out their effective spoiling act to thwart the City juggernaut this weekend, Neville is right that the bigger picture needs better solutions at his old club. Although, probably nothing as outlandish as suggesting Sam Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach.

Luke Shaw and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will not face action from the Football Assocation for their comments about referee Stuart Attwell after Manchester United's 0-0 draw at Chelsea on Sunday. 

United felt hard done by in the first half at Stamford Bridge when the video assistant referee (VAR) brought to Attwell's attention a possible handball by Callum Hudson-Odoi in his own penalty area. 

The incident occurred just before a tussle with Mason Greenwood, who subsequently also appeared to touch the ball with his arm. 

Attwell was advised to review Hudson-Odoi's action on the pitchside monitor, yet no penalty was given despite replays appearing to show the Chelsea wing-back's hand in an unnatural position when coming into contact with the ball.

Shaw claimed in a post-match interview with Sky Sports that Attwell had told United captain Harry Maguire giving them a penalty would "cause a lot of talk after". 

United later clarified that Shaw misheard Maguire's conversation with the official. 

While Solskjaer refused to explicitly repeat Shaw's accusations, he was aware of what was said and made no attempt to shut them down, before also insisting it was "100 per cent" a penalty. 

He then went on to accuse Chelsea of influencing referees via content published to their website ahead of the match, with Maguire's recent VAR brushes the focus of the article in question. 

Yet despite the comments made by Shaw and Solskjaer, neither is set to face any disciplinary action, with the FA not considering them to be in breach of the rules and regulations. 

Luke Shaw claimed referee Stuart Attwell told Manchester United captain Harry Maguire that giving a penalty in Sunday's draw with Chelsea would have "caused a lot of talk".

The Red Devils saw their unbeaten Premier League run away from home stretch to 20 matches following a 0-0 stalemate at Stamford Bridge.

In the first half, Attwell checked on the pitchside monitor to see if a penalty should have been awarded to United when a bouncing ball struck the raised hand of Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was tussling with Mason Greenwood.

The official stuck with his initial decision not to give the spot-kick and, according to Shaw, he indicated to Maguire that changing his mind could have caused controversy.

"At the time I saw a handball and didn't know if it was Mason or Callum," Shaw told Sky Sports.

"I didn't know it was a potential check and that they needed to stop [the game] if it wasn't going to be a pen.

"But I heard the ref say to H [Maguire]: 'If I give a pen, it's going to cause a lot of talk after'. H was told it was a pen by VAR, but I'm not going to moan."

Speaking on Sky Sports, former United captain Gary Neville said the penalty would have been given before the guidance on handball incidents in the box changed in the Premier League earlier this season.

"There's no doubt earlier in the season that this would have been a penalty," he said. "Hudson-Odoi's panic is the fact that his arm shouldn't be there. I think it is a penalty."

However, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said awarding a penalty would have been nonsensical as the ball also struck Greenwood's arm, though it hit the Man United forward second.

"How can this be a VAR intervention? The player in red plays the ball with the hand and then we are checking for a penalty? Why does the referee have to see this?" he said.

"I've seen it on the iPad, I don't understand why the referee has to check it but I'm glad it was no penalty. That would make it even worse."

The draw saw United move a point above Leicester in second in the table, although leaders Manchester City are 12 points clear.

 

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has been impressed by Thomas Tuchel's work at Chelsea but is determined to "spoil" the Blues' unbeaten run when the sides meet on Sunday.

Chelsea have drawn two and won six of their eight matches in all competitions since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in the Stamford Bridge dugout on January 26, scoring 10 goals and conceding just twice.

Tuchel's men have moved to within six points of second-placed United, who enter the clash at Stamford Bridge on a club-record 19-game unbeaten streak on their travels in the Premier League.

That run started with a victory in this fixture 12 months ago and Maguire is hopeful of picking up another triumph in west London this weekend, with United going in search of back-to-back league wins at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 1995.

"Chelsea's obviously going to be a tough game but we went there last year and won and we will be looking to do that again," he told the club's official website. 

"They are keeping their position very nicely and build up really well and not conceding many goals, so it is a good start. We are hoping to spoil that.

"It is a great reaction [to the change of manager]. They are a great group of players with tons of talent and the money they spent in the summer, they are starting to gel, starting to tick, but we have got to look at ourselves, first and foremost.

"We go into the game full of confidence, full of belief. We will make sure we play to the ability of what we are capable of and go and get the three points."

Maguire was an unused substitute for the goalless draw with Real Sociedad on Thursday - a result that saw United advance to the last 16 of the Europa League as 4-0 aggregate winners.

The England international has started every league game for United this term and is eager to help his side prolong their eight-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

"Every three or four days you've got to be focused and mentally prepared to go and get the three points," he said.

"You have got to be prepared to keep winning, winning, winning and finding that consistency to enable us to get to where we want to be. If you want to get to where we want to be, you have got to be consistent."

United have won their last three away games against Chelsea in all competitions, having also prevailed at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup and EFL Cup, but they have never previously won four on the spin.

Donny van de Beek is back in contention to feature after missing United's last two matches through injury, but Scott McTominay has been ruled out while Edinson Cavani and Daniel James are major doubts.

Harry Maguire and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were left confused as to why West Brom's opener in Manchester United's 1-1 draw on Sunday was allowed to stand after an apparent foul.

United dropped points for the fourth time in five Premier League games, as the Red Devils were unable to make the most of their dominance at The Hawthorns.

Bruno Fernandes got United's goal on the stroke of half-time, taking him to 38 goal involvements for the club in as many league games, a record bettered by only Andy Cole (46) in his first 38 Premier League games.

But United failed to build on that as they struggled to break West Brom's packed defence down, meaning Mbaye Diagne's early goal consigned them to another disappointing result.

But there was more than a hint of controversy around Diagne's goal, which stood despite the striker clearly catching Victor Lindelof in the face with his hand.

The situation left Maguire and Solskjaer baffled.

Maguire, who had a goal of a similar nature disallowed against Burnley, told Sky Sports: "We created a lot of chances - enough to win the game.

"It was tough for ourselves with the goal we conceded - for us it was a foul. We played the game in their half. We can do more and improve but it's disappointing. It was a tough job against a team that defends deep."

Speaking to beIN SPORTS, Solskjaer added: "I'm an ex-forward, so it's not as if I'm going to say it's a big foul against Victor, but why did Harry's goal against Burnley – and I know I'm going back a bit here – [get disallowed] … Where's the consistency here? There's absolutely no consistency in any of these decisions.

"If Harry's against Burnley is a foul, that is miles worse. As a striker you say well done, because if that had been taken away from me I would have been disappointed, so it's just the consistency we're looking for."

The draw put United second again but meant they were seven points adrift of leaders Manchester City, who also have a game in hand.

Manchester United's players must demand success of each other in order to win their first silverware under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to captain Harry Maguire. 

Solskjaer's side advanced through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on Tuesday, recording a 1-0 extra-time win over West Ham thanks to Scott McTominay's strike. 

It was the Scotland international's seventh goal in 30 appearances for the club this season - as many as he managed in 84 outings in previous campaigns. 

United also have a Europa League last-32 tie with Real Sociedad to come later this month and are five points behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League, albeit having played a game more. 

After reaching the semi-finals of three competitions last season, as well as losing at the same stage to City in the EFL Cup last month, Maguire is determined to get over the line this time around. 

"Last season, it was disappointing to lose in the semi-finals like we did, but we've got to win trophies," he told MUTV. 

"We've got to demand that of each other. We do. We demand that we win trophies and it's vital the team starts winning trophies, for the club and the fans as well."

United's clean sheet against West Ham was their sixth in 10 matches and Maguire felt his side were good value for the win at Old Trafford. 

"We got there in the end and we deserved it," he said. "We felt comfortable on the pitch.  

"I felt in the first half we played with intensity and dominated the game, played the game in their half and had chances where we should be one, two, three up." 

Victory for United was the ideal response to Saturday's 3-3 league draw with Everton, a defensive display Maguire concedes cannot be repeated. 

"When we've conceded, we've conceded too many - when we concede one it seems to be two. It was three against Everton. That's not good enough for this club,” he said. 

"We were disappointed at the weekend. We felt we deserved the three points but we couldn't feel sorry for ourselves.  

"We knew we had to come here tonight and bounce back and get that momentum back on our side ready for Sunday [against West Brom]." 

The Red Devils have won their last nine FA Cup matches at Old Trafford - their joint-longest home winning run in the competition, equalling their nine in a row between 1908 and 1912. Maguire is hoping they will get to play at their own ground again when the draw for the last eight is made on Thursday. 

"Yes, of course. We love playing at this ground, and we've got to make it tough for people to come here and get results," he said.  

"We need to get better and we seem to have improved a little of late. But no, obviously, we want a home game. 

"We fancy our chances against anyone. We just need to look after ourselves, perform well and assure that we start winning trophies at this club."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes the pain of the late collapse against Everton inspired Manchester United to edge past West Ham in the FA Cup fifth round.

Scott McTominay's goal, seven minutes into extra-time, earned United a 1-0 win over the Hammers in a match the Red Devils dominated, leading the shot count 17-3.

Three days earlier, Solskjaer's side let a 2-0 lead slip and then conceded a stoppage-time equaliser in a 3-3 draw against Everton that dented their Premier League title bid.

Following some soul-searching after dropping the precious points at Old Trafford, Solskjaer believes United responded in the best way possible to advance to the FA Cup quarter-finals.

"We needed to have a good result and a good feeling today because we were low after the Everton game. It's hard to take but they were really focused and did the job," Solskjaer said.

"Of course you want to win every game. We want to challenge and we want to go to the final. That's what we're here at Manchester United for.

"Sometimes you're lucky with draws in the cup – we haven't been that lucky – but obviously we move another step closer to the final."

Paul Pogba will miss "a few weeks" for Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed in concerning news ahead of a key month.

World Cup-winning midfielder Pogba returned to United's starting line-up to face Everton at the weekend but lasted just 39 minutes of the 3-3 draw.

The 27-year-old appeared to suffer a thigh injury and was quickly deemed a doubt for Tuesday's FA Cup fifth-round clash with West Ham on Tuesday.

Solskjaer has since revealed the extent of the issue, which could keen Pogba out of a series of big matches.

United play Real Sociedad home and away in the Europa League in February, before visiting Chelsea in the Premier League at the end of the month and Manchester City on March 6.

"It's an injury that will take a few weeks to heal," Solskjaer told MUTV. "He's just started his recovery, working with the medical staff and we'll get him back as soon and safely as we can.

"Of course, Paul has been very important for us and we're not going to take any risks. [It will be] a few weeks, definitely.

"You never want to be injured and, especially, now Paul was really finding his form and enjoying his football. For us, we just have to take as many points and wins as possible, when you lose players.

"We've been very healthy and strong for a long period so we can't moan too much."

Pogba scored winning goals at Burnley and Fulham in January, although United's form has since suffered a little, allowing City to build a five-point gap at the summit with a game in hand.

Meanwhile, Solskjaer suggested that captain Harry Maguire could be given a rest against West Ham, having sat out just two games since the campaign started.

"Of course I think about if he needs a rest, if he physically can keep going and going," said the United boss.

"The nature of a centre-back position is a different position compared to full-backs and wide men or even central midfielders, or any other position on the pitch. The centre-backs are the ones who are protected mostly from the real fatigue because you're working less.

"Then again, he's never injured, Harry. He's never been really badly hurt, touch wood, and hopefully he'll be able to carry on. But I'm not sure if he'll play on Tuesday or not. I've not decided yet."

United have scored 12 goals across their past two games and although Mason Greenwood did not find the net in the 9-0 win over Southampton or the draw with Everton, Solskjaer has been impressed by his recent displays.

Greenwood created two chances – one of which ended in an assist – and had two efforts on target against Southampton, while he also completed three dribbles. Versus Everton he failed to hit the target or supply a key pass, but was again successful with three of his five attempted dribbles.

"Mason was different class [against Everton]. I thought he was the standout performer on the pitch - he just didn't get the goal that his performance deserved," said Solskjaer.

"I think the last few games, if you look at him closely - yeah, I know we scored nine against Southampton - but if you look at his performance, I thought his performance was top.

"He's improved and matured immensely, and he's working with some of the top forwards in the country, of course. He's learning off them, and it's exciting to see that he's come over his blip and is playing really well."

Harry Maguire believes it is time for Manchester United to "stand up and be counted" after the team were left "devastated" by Wednesday's 2-1 defeat to rock-bottom Sheffield United. 

The Red Devils were aiming to go back top of the Premier League table but succumbed to a shock loss at Old Trafford, Oli Burke's fortuitous winner sealing the points after Maguire's goal against his former club had initially cancelled out Kean Bryan's first-half opener. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men had gone unbeaten in their previous 13 matches but were well off the pace against the Blades. 

Captain Maguire urged the squad to rebound quickly for Saturday's trip to Arsenal, who coincidentally were the last side before Chris Wilder's team to defeat them in the league. 

"When you do get a defeat, there's nothing worse than waiting to get back out on the pitch to play and put things right," Maguire told United's club media. 

"The boys are devastated, if I'm honest. It's a really quiet dressing room. The boys are so disappointed; we didn't expect it, we came into the game confident. 

"We've got to pick ourselves up. We are disappointed and it hurts, but Saturday is a big game and we've got to bounce back. 

"It's all good and easy when you're winning football matches and you're playing well, but now it's time to stand up and be counted. 

"When you get kicked down it's how quickly you bounce back and Saturday's a big one and we've got to get three points."

Maguire rued the defensive lapses that he felt proved so costly. 

"Not good enough," he added. "We didn't perform to a level we've been playing at. We didn't play at an intensity that we've played at. We haven't created enough to win the game. 

"We didn't see it coming; we prepared well and were fully confident. We fell behind to a soft goal, but we felt that we could come back, like we've done numerous times this year, and come back and win the game. 

"We got ourselves back into the game and we felt like the next goal would be crucial, and we managed to get that, and we just didn't kick on; we didn't find that spark. Then from that position, we can't lose the game. You've thrown away a point. 

"It's probably the first time they've been in our box in the second half and they managed to score, so we've got to look at it and got to improve. For sure, he [Burke] can't be taking a touch and controlling it and having a shot in our box with no-one around him. It's not good enough." 

There was contention in the first half, with United claiming Billy Sharp had fouled David De Gea in the process of the Blades taking the lead, while referee Peter Bankes ruled out a goal for the home team with Maguire judged to have impeded visiting keeper Aaron Ramsdale when Anthony Martial swept home. 

"It's incredible. There's no doubt that Billy Sharp's is more of a foul than what I did at the other end," Maguire said of the two incidents. 

"Maybe people will say both aren't fouls, but definitely not David's is and that one isn't. I jumped for the ball. I don't think I actually touched the keeper.  

"I think he just touches me in the back; my arms are nowhere near him. I think the referee will look back and know he's made a mistake."

Manchester United failed to regain top spot in the Premier League after suffering a shock 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield United on Wednesday.

Harry Maguire cancelled out an opening goal from Kean Bryan, but a deflected strike from substitute Oliver Burke secured just a second league win of the season for the Blades.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men needed to win to overtake Manchester City at the top but delivered a lifeless performance as they saw a 13-match unbeaten run in the top flight come to an end.

They managed only four shots on target despite having nearly 75 per cent of the possession as they failed to beat Sheffield United at home in a league game for the first time since August 1975.

Marcus Rashford, passed fit after a knee problem, pulled a shot wide from a good Aaron Wan-Bissaka cut-back as the home side controlled the early play.

But they found themselves behind from the first corner of the match, Bryan glancing the ball in off the post after beating David de Gea to John Fleck's delivery.

De Gea felt he had been pushed by Billy Sharp and home frustrations grew when Anthony Martial scored after Aaron Ramsdale dropped the ball, only for the goal to be disallowed harshly for a foul by Maguire.

Mason Greenwood scuffed a good chance wide from a Bruno Fernandes throughball, but it was another set-piece through which the scores were levelled, Maguire running onto Alex Telles' corner to head in the equaliser.

Edinson Cavani was introduced off the bench but it was Burke who proved the match-winner, his shot skidding off Axel Tuanzebe's knee and in off the crossbar after the home side had failed to clear.

 

What does it mean? Big boost for City in title race

City's thrashing of West Brom left Man United needing to respond in order to regain top spot from their local rivals.

Instead, they offered a largely dismal display in damp conditions, and City can now move four points clear at the top if they win their game in hand.

Sheffield United's second win of the season gives them some survival hope, although they are 10 points from safety.

Basham bosses the back

Chris Basham was the standout performer of a supremely well-organised Sheffield United defence.

He made four tackles, six clearances - tied for a game high - and nine possessional gains alongside veteran Phil Jagielka.

Red Devils pay for De Gea indecision

There was scarcely a single positive about Man United's display but the result ultimately came down to two De Gea moments.

Perhaps Sharp fouled him for the opener but he could still have done more to reach the cross, and it was his aimless kick that led to Burke's winner.

What's next?

Solskjaer's men face Arsenal away on Saturday, while Sheffield United have another daunting away game, this time at Manchester City.

Harry Maguire has paid tribute to Paul Pogba following his match-winning goal in the 2-1 victory at Fulham, commending him for his form.

It was not so long ago that Pogba's United future appeared to amount to little, as his form at the start of the season was poor and his agent Mino Raiola claimed he was "finished" at Old Trafford.

Raiola's comments came as recently as December 7, two days after Pogba had played a pivotal role in a 3-1 comeback win at West Ham and on the eve of a crucial Champions League trip to RB Leipzig, that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men ultimately lost and suffered elimination.

At the time, that West Ham game was Pogba's first Premier League start in over a month due to a foot injury, but since then he has rarely been out of the team, the time off seemingly doing him some good after Solskjaer had suggested his slow start to the season was caused by his contracting of coronavirus.

He almost won the weekend game against Liverpool as he saw a fine opportunity thwarted by Alisson, but he did deal the decisive blow at Fulham on Wednesday, a wonderful left-footed strike from distance leaving Alphonse Areola helpless, and United captain Maguire was thrilled.

"Paul doesn't have a weak foot," Maguire told MUTV. "You can see Paul, over the last month or so, he's starting to get his fitness back and credit to Paul.

"Coming back into the team and doing what he's doing at the moment is great for us. He's a big part of the dressing room, he's a big player for us.

"We know he can produce moments of brilliance. For sure, I hope he carries on and I'm sure he will."

POGBACK IN BUSINESS

Opta data backs up Maguire's assertion that Pogba is proving himself a "big player" for United at the moment.

Since kick-off in the West Ham win, only Marcus Rashford (five) and Bruno Fernandes (four) have scored more than Pogba's three in the Premier League, but two of those have also been winners.

Pogba is stepping up when others are not, dragging United over the finish line in some cases, while his influence in the aforementioned West Ham win was significant. He took the game by the scruff of the neck with a glorious equaliser that set the tone for one of many United turnarounds this term.

There has been more to him than just scoring the occasional goal, however. The Fulham win showed how his overall influence has grown, as his 85 passes was a high among United players and his 106 touches of the ball was second only to Aaron Wan-Bissaka (109).

Since December 5, he is averaging 53.2 successful passes and 84.9 touches per 90 minutes played in the Premier League – the only United players with better averages in those metrics (Nemanja Matic and Alex Telles, respectively) have played less than half as many minutes as Pogba.

Before December 5, Pogba was making 46.1 accurate passes every 90 minutes and having 79.4 touches on average – while not a huge increase in the latter, there were several players seeing more of the ball than him, now there are not.

While Pogba's future is bound to become a bone of contention again sooner or later and provide another irritating distraction in the soap opera that has been his association with United, for the time being at least he is giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a dependable alternative to Bruno Fernandes in midfield.

With the Portugal star's performances on the wane a little lately amid suggestions of fatigue, Pogba's resurgence is a timely boost as the Red Devils look to firmly plant themselves atop the Premier League table.

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

Paul Pogba felt Harry Maguire was wrongly denied a beautiful goal but hailed Manchester United for keeping cool heads to move top of the Premier League.

United captain Maguire thought he had headed United into a first-half lead against Burnley only for referee Kevin Friend to controversially adjudge he had fouled Erik Pieters in the process. 

VAR backed that decision and for a while it looked like United would be frustrated in their bid for victory.

But Pogba connected sweetly with a Marcus Rashford cross 19 minutes from time and his volley beat home goalkeeper Nick Pope with the aid of a deflection off Matthew Lowton.

It gave United a 1-0 win that moves them three points clear of Premier League champions Liverpool ahead of the massive clash between the two teams at Anfield on Sunday.

"It was a goal for sure - I don't know what happened," Pogba said about the Maguire disallowed header, which came shortly after VAR had intervened to rescind a Robbie Brady foul, instead penalising Luke Shaw.

"It was a beautiful goal and the referee decided that it was not. It was a strange decision, but we got the result we wanted so we are happy.

"Obviously it is hard but you have to be professional and we know it wasn't going to be easy with the decision of the referee which I didn't agree with.

"But I'm not the boss on the pitch so we just have to keep calm and keep focused and of course we scored and won the game."

United are top at this stage of the season for the first time since Alex Ferguson's last season in charge, when they went on to win the title.

But after just 17 top-flight games, Pogba reminded his team-mates there is so much work still to do.

"You can see that the game was going both ways, it is very hard to play here," added man of the match Pogba, who had game highs in touches (104), completed passes (70) and clearances (five).

"They have a style of play, very strong and we knew it would be difficult.

"We had to keep our heads calm and just focus on ourselves and hope the goal would come and it did come. It was a great performance from everyone, good focus.

"Always happy when I win - we won and I'm happy we played well. Still a long way to go and we have big games to go so we have to focus on that.

"We got the three points and we're happy for that but there's still a long way and now we focus again until the end of the season."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks Edinson Cavani could forge a longer-term career at Manchester United, saying the striker has "a few years left" at the highest level.

Cavani arrived on the October 5 deadline day at the end of the previous transfer window, in which the Red Devils' business again came under scrutiny.

With a move for long-standing target Jadon Sancho not coming to fruition and Donny van de Beek their only major signing, United agreed a flurry of deals in the final hours, bringing in Cavani on a free transfer alongside Alex Telles from Porto, Facundo Pellistri from Penarol and Amad Diallo from Atalanta - the latter is due to arrive next month.

Despite the rushed nature of his move, Cavani has had a telling impact in England even though he has made seven of his eight Premier League appearances as a substitute.

He scored twice and set up another to help United come from 2-0 down to beat Southampton 3-2 last month after netting his first goal in the 3-1 win at Everton, and he also broke the deadlock in the 2-0 EFL Cup win at Goodison Park last week. He then assisted Bruno Fernandes' goal in the 2-2 draw at Leicester City on Boxing Day.

Along with three goals and two assists in his past six appearances, the former Paris Saint-Germain star offers United a different focal point in attack, bringing what was described by Marcus Rashford as "another dimension" to a young forward line.

Cavani's one-year deal contains the option of a second and, while he would not offer any assurances over his future, manager Solskjaer appears convinced the Uruguayan could offer a lot to his side if he is kept on for next season.

"At the moment, it looks like he's got a few years left in him," said Solskjaer. "I wouldn't say anything else. He's made a great impact, so let's just focus on improving everyone.

"But he's got a few years left in him."

Solskjaer insisted Cavani is "definitely a starter" despite his predominant substitute role and brings confidence befitting the number seven shirt.

"I trust him, I trust my players, and we've got good competition for places. He'll probably start more games than he won't start," he said.

"That was the first thing he asked me, if he could wear the number seven. We talk about the history of the shirt and for me, with the history of his career, his personality, the chat I had with him and when I watched him before, I wasn't in doubt that he could handle that number seven shirt.

"He's so meticulous, professional. His habits, everything about it shows why he's had the career he's had. Even at the age he is now, he's one of the fittest players we've got."

Solskjaer's men had to settle for a draw at Leicester after Axel Tuanzebe's late own goal, but they are on an eight-game unbeaten run in the league and sit only five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.

The United boss thinks the improved recent form of captain Harry Maguire has had a positive impact on results and performances.

"Harry's a strong character and a very good player and he's led from the back, if you put it that way," he said. "He's really been putting himself forward, always wants to play, he never wants to rest, and he's really improved throughout the season - with the team, of course. We can see more and more maturity and leadership from Harry every game.

"I support Harry and he's such a good human being and he's in there, leading the dressing room, he's very humble, hard-working, he knows when he has to hold his hands up."

United had been on a run of just one win in eight home league games before the visit of Leeds United on December 20, when the Red Devils triumphed 6-2.

Solskjaer hopes that display will leave his players full of confidence for Tuesday's visit of Wolves.

"When the last game you played at Old Trafford gave you six goals, I'm sure the boys will look forward to [the next one]," he added.

"It gave us confidence, that performance. It was a little gauge on how fit we are, that we could match them fitness-wise. We have loads of games in a short space of time but Wolves have got an even shorter turnaround this time, but they haven't had a midweek game.

"We've had so many tight games against them. We are improving, definitely, we're getting better and better at finding different solutions in different games but we know Wolves have got quality as well, that they will give us problems if we're too open, so we've got to put a plan together."

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire said an inability to defend, and not manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tactics, is to blame for the Red Devils crashing out of the Champions League.

United required only a draw from Tuesday's trip to RB Leipzig to advance to the last 16 of the competition but were beaten 3-2 by last season's semi-finalists at the Red Bull Arena.

Solskjaer went with a five-man defence – a formation last used in the 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in October – and United found themselves two goals down inside 13 minutes, both goals coming from simple crosses.

Only against Juventus in April 1999 have United been 2-0 down earlier in a Champions League match (11 minutes), with on-loan Manchester City defender Angelino scoring the first and setting up the second for Amadou Haidara.

Justin Kluivert added a third for Leipzig and, despite Bruno Fernandes scoring a penalty and substitute Paul Pogba heading in late on, the visitors fell short in Germany.

Maguire insisted the players have to take full responsibility for the defeat, which condemned United to Europa League football in the second half of the season, having reached the semi-finals of the competition last term.

"We started the game too slow," he told BT Sport. "It wasn't good enough. The first 20 minutes we weren't at it. They put two balls in the box and we failed to deal with them.

"We have to look at ourselves. We gave ourselves too much to do. You've seen how close we came at the end but we started too slow and we can't keep falling behind.

"We said on Saturday at half-time, 2-0 down, the next goal is crucial and we said it again tonight. They made it 3-0 and the task becomes even bigger. 

"The third goal proved to be the crucial one but even three down we came close at the end. I don't want to look at excuses. 

"We have to go out and be aggressive, win balls. That's the basics. If you can't defend crosses you're going to lose games. I don't want to look at shape - it's not an excuse."

Leipzig will join French champions PSG in the knockout stages, with United third and Istanbul Basaksehir fourth.

"It's a tough group but we felt we should get through," Maguire said. "That's the standards of this club. 

"I'm gutted for everyone. We worked so hard to reach this competition last season. No matter what group we got it would be tough. We have to do more."

United have trailed in all five of their away Premier League games this season and gone on to win each of them, having rallied past West Ham 3-1 on Saturday.

However, this latest European defeat has once again increased the pressure on Solskjaer and the Norwegian conceded his side are giving themselves too much to do.

"We started too late," he said. "We showed great spirit and come back again. It's different to the Premier League - you can't give a team a three-goal lead and expect to come back. 

"We were unlucky towards the end and you almost thought it was in at the last minute there. Of course you can't say we were good enough, we weren't."

Solskjaer has lost six of his 10 Champions League games as United boss – the most of any manager in the competition after 10 matches while in charge of an English club.
 
And the under-fire United manager pinpointed last month's shambolic 2-1 away loss to Basaksehir as the turning point in his side's Group H campaign.

"It was a difficult group. The big defeat for us was the one away to Istanbul - that's where we lost the points we should have had," he said.

"Today we were close but we knew we had to defend crosses and balls into the box and we just couldn't clear them.

"As a footballer you can't feel sorry for yourself. You feel sorry for a few minutes tonight and then we focus on a massive game on Saturday."

Page 2 of 8
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.