By Preye Campbell
There is an interesting piece of information to consider from the last three Premier League title-winning managers.
With Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, and Jurgen Klopp at Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool respectively, there was a structured flow of football that defined just where and when the ball and the player will move at every point. The highly structured possession football has been regarded by many as that style that is set to define modern football for the next decade. With a highly structured possession football, players know when to turn to whenever someone has got the ball.
The beauty is in the anticipation of where the ball will go to even before it is played. These managers made sure the message was clear at training; several, repetitive drilling had to be done just to get every aspect right to the last detail. The result? All three managers accrued over 90 points in their title run and Pep Guardiola won it twice in the space of four years.
And this is just what Manchester United are lacking under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian ‘baby-faced assassin’ returned to Old Trafford in the wake of a disappointing 2018/19 season for the Red Devils. Of course, he managed to deliver crucial results and to an extent, add a bit of hope in a horrendous campaign. In the 2019/20 season, Solskjaer became the permanent man in charge and took United to a third-place finish and a return to the UEFA Champions League.
Saturday’s lethargic display against Crystal Palace shows again the depth of a United team that lacks the knowledge of highly structured football. As opposed to the likes of Klopp and Guardiola, Solskjaer does not see beyond the game and more often than not, he expects his players to initiate the passes and control. This could work certainly -Bruno Fernandes made sure of it with his individual quality last season-, but when the players get as slow and lost as they were against Palace, errors happen and the opposing team is all too happy to capitalise on that.
There is no structure in United’s game and Solskjaer can be likened to a manager who looks at the next pass instead of calculating several moves ahead. When a team plays on improvisation, they find it hard to overcome a highly structured team. The moves are easily read and the players are easily manipulated by the opposing team to cause errors during play. With United, it takes the effort of one or two individuals to create a spark in the game when things are going south, and truthfully that is not enough to clinch the league title.
Surely, United need new signings, and quickly too, as the performance of the defensive unit against Palace has largely reflected. Captain Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof turned preys in the hands of Wilfried Zaha, Jeffrey Schlupp and Jordan Ayew on several occasions. At least one center-back, who knows how to give defense-splitting passes to the midfield is needed. United have had a frustrating transfer window so far, -capturing only Donny Van De Beek from Ajax- and getting any player who fits that category looks uncertain.
To win the Premier League title these days, at least 95 points is needed. To get 95 points, a lot more than ‘improvisation football’ needs to be done. For now, Solskjaer remains in the dugout for the Red Devils. And while he is in there, the league title could remain outside Old Trafford for as long as he is in charge.
The season has just begun, but it could be over for the Red Devils already.