Gary Neville has described Manchester United’s players as acting like “babies” when they concede goals and warned of a seismic disconnect within the team.
In an excoriating analysis of United’s weekend defeat at Leicester for Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, Neville described the shock selection of Harry Maguire, after a month out with injury, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “biggest mistake”.
“He was absolutely nowhere near,” concluded Neville. “Picking him in the first place was maybe a panic of not having both Maguire and Varane, but not taking him off at half-time? That was the biggest mistake. Bailly should have played alongside Lindelof.”
But it was United’s performance in general, and most notably their second-half ‘disconnect’ which alarmed Neville the most ahead of United’s gruelling run of fixtures, starting with the visit of Liverpool on Sunday, live on Sky Sports.
“I watched the game on the high-camera and Manchester United were appalling all the way through it.”
‘Babies’ and ‘baggy’ – Neville on where it went wrong for United at Leicester
Having reached half-time level at 1-1, United collapsed after the interval, conceding three times with huge gaps emerging between United’s frontmen and their overexposed defenders.
“They are baggy and they are a pretty awful side to watch when they are baggy,” concluded Neville. “There were spaces everywhere.
“They don’t press very well, they have no intensity, they walk around the pitch – particularly their front players – and they must think they are better than they are because when I watch Liverpool and Manchester City, they sprint.
United’s second-half collapse was borne out by their expected goals against stats for the two halves – just 0.4 in the first, but 2.2 in the second.
“There was a massive, massive change. Leicester looked like they could score with every single attack,” continued Neville.
“Patterns started to emerge throughout the second half where the front and back of the team became disconnected. You ended up with two teams: the front five – the egos, the great players, the world-class ones – and the back five.
“Manchester United ended up with a disconnected, non-compact unit which Leicester found it really comfortable to play against.
“This Manchester United team are really poor in reacting to goals. They are a little bit like babies after conceding a goal – if they score, they puff their chests out, the egos come out, and they start to push forward for another goal.
“The disconnected team was exacerbated by individual errors, and they ended up losing the game and rightly so… this Manchester United team play in moments, they haven’t got a style or identity, but they have brilliant players.
“What you’ve got to try and do is get into a shape of some kind, and work on that shape so you can keep a clean sheet or lose one goal while always scoring two or three. On Saturday, they did not do that – they broke rank in the second half, didn’t listen to their coach and his instructions – whichever one it is, it’s bad – and they need to correct that very quickly, otherwise they will lose a lot of football matches if they carry on like that.”
So what is the solution for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
According to Jamie Carragher, alongside Neville on Monday Night Football, United’s current issues of formation and cohesion can be traced back to the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.
“You can’t play five attacking players,” said Carragher. “I’ve never believed Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes can play together centrally.
“But the reason Pogba is playing centrally all comes back to the Ronaldo signing. I’m not trying to be clever after the event.
“I said after the signing that he would be better signing for the Premier League than Manchester United. I knew that he would have to play every game and what is the knock-on effect?”
For Carragher, the critical consequence of Ronaldo’s signing has been a disastrous shift centrally for Pogba.
“Pogba went to the left towards the end of last season and Manchester United nearly fell on something. But as soon as Ronaldo comes in, Pogba has to play centre-midfield to get all these players in.
“But when Pogba plays centre-midfield, there is a disconnect in the team. He is not disciplined enough to play centre-midfield. I’m not saying he should be out of the team, but he is not a centre-midfield player in a Manchester United shirt.”
Pogba has played in central midfield for United on four occasions this season. Although United won three of those games, their defensive vulnerabilities were acute – against Wolves, their expected goals against figure was 2.3; against Villarreal in the Champions League it was 2.8; and at Leicester this weekend it was 2.5
“They have been so lucky in those games,” said Carragher. “This is what happens not just when Pogba is in centre-midfield but when Manchester United are playing with those five attacking players. That has to change. If this carries on and they continue to play all the big stars, Manchester United could struggle to finish in the top four.”
All of which leaves Solskjaer with an acute selection dilemma to solve, starting in central midfielder.
“Ole can’t go back to McTominay and Fred,” cautioned Neville. “He can’t go back to Matic and Fred. Because we know what that delivers – it won’t build Manchester United success.
“Ole has brought these players in and Pep Guardiola plays with five attacking players.
“What Ole needs to prove is that he is a top manger and in his development as a coach this season he can get his top players to work as hard as the other top players in the league.”
Manchester United face a formidable set of fixtures in October and November as they look to keep pace in the Premier League and ensure Champions League qualification, with Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and the Manchester derby looming domestically.
October 20: Atalanta (h) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
October 24: Liverpool (h) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports
October 30: Tottenham (a) – Premier League, kick-off 5.30pm, live on Sky Sports
November 2: Atalanta (a) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
November 6: Man City (h) – Premier League, kick-off 12.30pm, live on Sky Sports
November 20: Watford (a) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
November 23: Villarreal (a) – Champions League, kick-off 5.45pm
November 28: Chelsea (a) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports
November 30: Arsenal (h) – Premier League, kick-off 8pm