What a hotly contested top four this Premier League season is going to see.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rightly unleashed criticism on his team after Manchester United’s embarrassing performance on Sunday, losing 4-0 to Everton away at Goodison Park.
In a performance bereft of passion United’s players simply did not put in the effort required to win Premier League games.
Solskjaer has done a brilliant job in his time so far. Of course United are on a poor run, but when you combine the injury and suspension list with the recent schedule that United have faced it is not as dire as some have made out. The Champions League games against Barcelona with an on-form Lionel Messi destroying a piecemeal backline should be discounted in any consideration.
This result against Everton is the sole shocking result and is rightly being met by an inquest as the elements of poor performance in previous games combined to highlight the real problem of attitude within the current squad. It is not as though United don’t have reason to fight, with a top-four spot still well within reach – in fact a win here would have put them equal on points with Tottenham in third place, something that was simply unfathomable when Solskjaer took over as caretaker manager back in December.
So what went wrong? Primarily United reportedly ran eight kilometres less than their counterparts, a shocking disparity of effort and one that was clear to see – the Everton players seemed to able to walk through the midfield unchallenged. At no point was this clearer than when Gylfi Sigurdsson, perhaps the league’s most dangerous player shooting from range, slowly eased past Nemanja Matic before finding the bottom corner. Sigurdsson is neither a quick player nor a particularly tricky dribbler; he just shifted to one side and the desire to close him down was simply not there.
For Solskjaer, who clearly cares so much about the club and has played alongside players who gave their all in every match, it must be difficult to comprehend how this current squad seems to lack the basic commitment required to win games of football. In his post-match interview Solskjaer was asked if he believed the players cared enough to play for the club. His response was uncomfortable, taking his time and considering the strange reality of this situation. He seemed to be reflecting upon this confounding position he finds himself in before finally admitting, “I don’t know”.
Solskjaer followed this by discussing his successful playing days under Sir Alex Ferguson – how they were always the “hardest working team in the league”. He noted that talent is one thing, but that you still have to run more than anyone else. The message being conveyed is crystal clear: this group of players, while talented, is still not putting in the effort required for a club of this size. This has only been affirmed in the post-Jose Mourinho era. Once Mourinho was gone and the players visibly lifted their efforts, they went on an incredible winning sequence.
So the question is: what decisions does Solskjaer need to make for the rest of the season in looking to the upcoming transfer window and next season? The criteria have already been clearly and simply laid out. Solskjaer wants players who care enough about the club to outrun the opposition in every game. From this it is easy to delegate a group of players who this season have shown that they do not fit this criterion. It’s now time for Solskjaer to back himself in his team selections for the remainder of the season, showing that he will make tough decisions to shape the squad that he believes can bring United long-term success.
While the defence does lack in quality, something Jose Mourinho correctly identified, it is in midfield that immediate changes need to be made. Nemanja Matic is the clearest candidate. While last season he was perhaps player of the season, this year he has been woefully off the pace and is not capable of playing in Solskjaer’s fast-paced system, which requires constant positional readjustment. Beyond this, Matic rarely seems concerned by his continual own mistakes or in trying to make the game difficult for the opponent. He should not play for the club again.
Paul Pogba often comes in for criticism and many think he fits into this category also. However, Pogba was one of the few players who should not be ashamed of his performance against Everton, showing more desire than many others. Ander Herrera is another who fits into this category, always visibly caring, but it seems the club has let Solskjaer down by allowing him to leave on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Despite this, Herrera should come back into the side at the expense of Matic, even as a symbolic short-term message that effort does triumph over the valuation of players as assets.
Fred and Andreas Pereira have still not shown that they have the quality required for elite-level footballers, both continually making basic errors in each game. They are fine to be kept as squad players though, as they both do continue to show desire, to their credit. However, they should not be in the starting line-ups for the four remaining games. McTominay has had a fine season and shows the bite and desire required to hold his spot down, perhaps even positioning himself for a starting spot next season. This ought to be rewarded with a spot in the starting line-up for the rest of this season, alongside Herrera and Pogba.
In attack, and despite a bright beginning at the start of Ole’s reign, Martial and Rashford have seriously lowered their standards over the past few months and ought to be dropped. Martial in particular has looked completely uninterested for weeks now, scoring only two in his past 14 games, and should not start another game this year. Rashford has fared only slightly better and is increasingly looking complacent about his spot in the starting line-up. Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku should be given the chance to play themselves into form, complemented by the talented youth players Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood.
David de Gea has also had his poorest season for United in recent memory, and it must be quickly decided with him if his heart is still in the United project or not. If not, Sergio Romero can easily come into the side, having proven himself numerous times to be a very capable back-up option. If De Gea chooses to leave, it provides an opportunity for Dean Henderson, who has had a fantastic season on loan at Sheffield United, to come back and fight for the No. 1 spot next season.
For some this may seem like rewarding players who lack United quality, but this is about a bigger ideal and may actually be the only real option to get United back to where Solskjaer believes they should be.
There are four games left in a disappointing season and Champions League qualification may be already out of United’s hands given the tough next two games against Manchester City and Chelsea. Solskjaer should use this opportunity to show his players that he means what he has pointedly said in public in preparation for the squad overhaul to come over the winter transfer window.