In Focus – Evaluating Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s permanent signings
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has made four permanent first-team signings for Manchester United over the course of the last two transfer windows. In this article, we take a look at how each one of them has fared so far at United, what their strengths are, how their skills can be optimised and areas where all of them could do better.
Harry Maguire arrived from Leicester City for a world-record fee for a defender in the region of £85M. The consensus was that although it was overpaying on United’s part, the team was getting an excellent Premier League proven defender. He had some very good qualities which a team who had conceded 54 goals in the previous Premier League season(only one team in the top 10 had conceded more, West Ham with 55) could do with. More importantly, transfer fees in this market are influenced by things more than just the true value of the player in question, things like financial situation of the selling club(very good in case of Leicester), need of the buying club(a very high one in case of United) and the number of years left on the contract of the player in question(Maguire still had four years left on his deal last summer). All in all, in terms of footballing ability, United had got a very good fit in their ranks, and the expectations were huge.
Maguire had an excellent start to life at United after he put on a very good performance in the first Premier League game of the season against Chelsea. He showed all of the qualities which make him a suitable player for United’s backline – His efficiency and consistency in winning those aerial duels, his dribbling and ball-carrying ability, the sheer composure with the ball at his feet and his passing abilities. It wasn’t as rosy throughout the season because of various factors. He had a dip in form for some time as well with the game away at Arsenal being probably one of the performances he wouldn’t want to look back at, as he’s a much better player than what we saw there. Also, United’s midfield and the lack of defensive nous and cover for a sizeable part of the season didn’t help him, and the defensive line. The improvement on those grounds was clear when the team had Nemanja Matic back in the starting 11 after his return from injury. He has better positioning sense and ball retention abilities than the likes of Fred and Mctominay who have some very good qualities, albeit different ones.
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Andreas Pereira also had to play in the pivot multiple times. That didn’t help either the team or him, as he could not settle into his role as he frequently had to play in different positions because of the lack of any depth in the team in those positions due to injuries to existing players.
All in all, as we can see, Maguire didn’t exactly have the ideal setup around him which he could walk into and start performing to the best of his abilities from day one. Still, he didn’t let all of that get to him and kept grafting it out until things did get better ultimately, comparatively at least.
If we look at Maguire’s numbers in isolation, he makes 53.6 passes per game with an accuracy of 85.6% and plays 4.2 accurate long balls per game at an accuracy of 55%
Defensively speaking, he wins 6.6 duels per game at an accuracy of 66%, unsurprisingly he has a good success percentage when it comes to winning aerial duels( winning 4.7 per game at an accuracy of 72%}. Ground duels is probably a category where he can do better( He wins 1.9 of them at an accuracy of 56%)
Overall with respect to his playing style,he has the ability to jump in and win the ball which allows him to then make the right pass forward. Sometimes, this could become a weakness if and when the attacker gets past him. This has the potential to be a problem as Maguire’s recovery pace isn’t the best, which is why a defender who can defend large spaces and has good recovery pace can probably be an ideal partner for him as well.
Nevertheless, he’s been one of the most proficient duellers in Europe this season when the quantity of duels is adjusted for time out of possession.
Talking about other qualities, he’s one of the best ball carriers in the Premier League in terms of the progressive carrying distance, only behind Wilfried Zaha, Jack Grealish and Adama Traore. Overall, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that United have got a very good player with some very good qualities which will be required if they want to become one of the best teams in the country again. Not to mention the leadership qualities Maguire brings on and off the field and how his teammates and the manager have only spoken highly of him in that regard. Below are Maguire’s numbers on various metrics this season in the league.
Aaron Wan Bissaka
Aaron Wan Bissaka arrived as a 21-year-old full-back from Crystal Palace for a total fee of around £50M. He had gained a reputation from the just concluded 18/19 season of the Premier League to potentially be one of the best potential right-backs in the country. Wan-Bissaka had freakishly good defensive numbers along with being one of the best dribblers in his position in the league. It would be fair to say that he’s lived up to those expectations right from his first preseason game to the Manchester derby at Old Trafford before coronavirus led to a suspension of the season.
He’s as good a 1v1 defender as they come these days, wingers may at times think they’ve beaten him, but he’s always there with his long legs dispossessing them the very next moment. Apart from how that serves the team well as a potential attack is stopped, it also plays on the minds of the opposition winger and has a psychological effect on what he does henceforth. This has been visible even on a player as good as Raheem Sterling. Wan-Bissaka absolutely has had Sterling’s number in both the league games and rendered him ineffective for huge parts of those games.
The notion that all he can do is tackle is far from the truth as well. He’s a very good interceptor of the ball as well if we’re talking about his other defensive qualities. He’s had very good numbers when it comes to dribbling this season as well. His crossing and game in the final third is something he needs to hone, but there have been clear signs of improvement on those grounds as the season has progressed. He’s a lot more confident now when it comes to beating his man and crossing from the by-line(both his assists in the league this season have come by doing this), and his crosses from that area usually have the right pace and height which is a promising sign. Seeing him underlapping is a thing of beauty too, he can dribble past opponents with ease making it look like he’s toying with them(this was most notably visible in the recently concluded Manchester derby at Old Trafford). But again, a potential area of improvement was visible the very next moment as well. After beating the players and getting past his man there, he lost his composure and couldn’t play a cutback to Martial. This is an area of his game which needs improvement. Getting better at those cutbacks and gaining some more composure in general when in the final third will go a long, long way in making him the complete player.
His passing has also come a long way than where it was at the beginning of the season. It may not be very aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but he’s become more effective at it as the season’s progressed, finding Martial or other players between the lines more frequently than he did earlier.
With continuous improvement in these areas, he’ll offer a very versatile option to work with to Ole and co. Wan-Bissaka can be used as a part of the back 3 in possession during the buildup, stay inverted on the right side of the midfield with other attackers ahead to stop counters, or form a part of the attacking front 5 in possession. This can work very well in theory with us having a competent BTL player in Bruno now, who links up very well with the likes of Juan Mata, Luke Shaw in possession.
In theory, when United would have the ball in advanced areas of the pitch, AWB could sit inverted in the midfield when Shaw ventures further ahead and both him and shaw could switch roles depending upon the situation in play which would provide excellent fluidity to the whole process.
Here are some structures in possession which could work well and where AWB could play his role well –
In the case where the opposition doesn’t have much transitional threat, it’s always possible for the FB who’s formed a back 3 to push up and basically form a 2-3-5 in possession at times, although 3-2-5 is beneficial if the opponent has a good threat in transition.
Below is a representation of AWB’s performances on various metrics for this season in the league.
The young Welsh winger arrived from Swansea City for a fee of around £15M. The first thing about him which excited everyone was his sheer pace which is always an asset to have in a player. Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer even said he had told James he would be playing around 15-20 games this season and would just stay in and around the squad in general, little did he know that he would end up playing about 37 in a season which is yet to be concluded, and out of which he’s started more than 30.
It wasn’t an ideal situation in some ways as he probably needed to be eased into playing at this level at a somewhat unfamiliar position in a team which was hardly functional or had any continuity for large parts due to injuries to major players and lack of quality players in certain necessary areas.
He’s a traditional winger who likes to hold the width and put them crosses into the box, especially when he’s playing from the right. When playing on his more familiar left-sided position, he offers a lot more in general as it allows him to cut in on his stronger foot and shoot at goal (this movement has resulted in 3 of his goals for the club this season).In my opinion, he’s most ideally suited for playing the wide left role in a front 5 in possession although he can easily play wide right too, and that’s where he’s played most of this season.
Of course, his decision making on the ball needs to get better, there have been a lot of occasions where he’s crossed the ball without putting his head up and looking at exactly where the attacker is, but it’s something which can be worked on.
There also have been occasions where he could have been more composed in front of goal or while playing a cutback. But again, as he grows older and more experienced at the highest level, he’ll get better at these aspects with time and when he can be used more judiciously in match situations/environments which suit him more.
He has proved to be an excellent tactical weapon in many ‘big games’ for United this season, be it the home game in the league against Liverpool, the Carabao Cup game against Chelsea, or either of the Manchester derbies in the league. He’s pretty efficient at pressing the opposition and has an excellent work rate and attitude, qualities you require in games like these. Also, he provides a threat in transition, of course, helping stretch opposition defences which means they usually stay with the 3-2-5 shape instead of committing another body forward and adding bodies in the midfield.
Obviously though United ultimately need to buy another forward with a more diverse skillset which is built on thriving against low blocks, given that’s what United encounter on most days against teams in the Premier League. That doesn’t mean James can’t be an essential part of the team. He has the potential to be a tactical weapon. When United are defending a slender one-goal lead, and the opposition is committing bodies forward, bringing on someone like James to run at those defenders with tired legs along with providing that insane work rate defensively will be worth so much. Also, with more space to exploit in these situations, he gives you much more threat in transition allowing the team to put the game to bed. You’d ideally like him playing in a setup which has enough quality from deeper areas and between the lines, more of which will hopefully be provided by the return of Paul Pogba and new signing Bruno Fernandes.
Despite a wide range of setbacks – being overplayed, not having the ideal dynamics to flourish in at times(or those dynamics not being created enough in a game), and him being in just his first full season at the level at a time when he has had to endure some personal problems as well. James has ten goal contributions in the season so far, 9 of them coming in the league, which is pretty promising given the room of improvement his own game in general and the team dynamics have.
Overall, considering the scope of improvement James has in his game and this management’s knack of improving and optimising the potential of the players at hand, fully expect him to be a very vital cog of the team for years to come if he keeps working hard and working on his weaker points. Considering his character, don’t be surprised if he gives it his 100% in trying to improve on his weaknesses.
After months of speculation and a long drawn saga of sorts in the January window, Bruno Fernandes arrived from Sporting CP on a guaranteed fee of £46.6m with around another £21.1m in add ons. One may argue this deal should have been done earlier in the summer as United were missing a player like him, one who could demand the ball and be a source of final third creativity and provide that final ball United were missing for a major part of the season. However, when he finally arrived and what’s followed since has been a pretty good demonstration of his abilities.
He made an impact straight away in his first game against wolves which he played 3 days after his signing was made official, showing his character and how he would not mind a challenge or two. However, the two-week break that followed was a blessing in disguise for the team and Bruno too. It allowed them to work on a few things and gain a better understanding of how they’d play together. And it was not long before he got his first goal contribution for the club in the form of an assist with a beautiful delivery from a corner for Harry Maguire to seal the game against top 4 rivals, Chelsea, away at Stamford bridge. What followed was a run in which United would not lose a single game till the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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Along with being capable of dropping deep to receive and progress the ball and an excellent work rate, Bruno can easily play various roles in a front 5 in possession. The Portuguese can play in either the half-space and also drift to the wider role to help accommodate the corresponding player in the half-space(he’s a done a lot of this on the left side allowing Luke Shaw to underlap, a dynamic which even led to the 2nd goal United scored against Derby county in the FA cup). He’s a player who is best utilised as someone who’s allowed to roam in between the lines. He does have a very high usage rate for the time he’s played for United, but his general playstyle means he isn’t shy at playing one touch-two touch passes/releasing the ball quickly. One would like to think that he can co-exist potentially with another between the lines creative ball magnet.
No coincidence that the coming of Bruno has resulted in sort of a renaissance for someone of the exact profile in the United squad – Juan Mata. Both of them have developed an understanding very quickly, and their linkup during games is a thing of beauty. Mata and Bruno predominantly have played on the right and left sides of the pitch, be it in half-spaces or drifting wide when playing with each other. It’s been pretty fluid in general, and neither have been shy to switch at times.
One of Bruno’s strengths is how well he can operate across the attacking third. Along with being capable of playing on the left side, he’s equally capable of playing on the right-sided half-spaces. He ca drift wide right as, and when required, his crossing from the right-sided half-spaces is also a very effective method to break teams down(an art which the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Eriksen are so good at).
Fernandes is pretty good at breaking the lines while dropping deep, although one may think he’ll need to do a bit lesser of that once the likes of Paul Pogba are back in the XI. Moving forward, his predominant role will be to receive the ball between the lines and become the creative fulcrum of the team. Although with someone like Pogba being as versatile he is and how he does have a knack of getting into the box, he’ll still have enough opportunities of dropping deep at times in my opinion, and this dynamic will only get better once the both of them develop an understanding.
Another big plus Bruno brings to the team is his abilities from dead-ball situations. He has an excellent delivery on him from corners and is also a good freekick taker. What stands out, though, is his ability to take penalties. In his career, Bruno Fernandes has scored 30 of the 32 penalties he’s taken, which is an outstanding record. His hop skip and jump style of taking penalties (like Chelsea Midfielder Jorginho) gives United a significant advantage from the spot-kick.
His leadership qualities and attitude towards the game is another big plus to have on and off the pitch in general, even when it comes to things as simple as guiding his teammates during a press, as has been seen multiple times during his short time at United so far. His never say die attitude also ensures players around him maintain their standards as it rubs off on others around him.
Of course, there are a set of challenges ahead of him and the team. In the days to come, along with maintaining the same promise he has shown, the return of someone like Paul Pogba into the team may need both of them to adjust their games a little to be accommodating of the other, but then that’s what good players do, and given that Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær does see Pogba as a deeper midfielder in general, that should not be as big a problem per se in the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, especially against low blocks or teams which sit back against United. A bit of a change here and there in the “big games” with a three at the back formation which has served United well this season, or the diamond midfield at games like Everton away are options at hand and tweaks which will need to be made depending upon the situation at hand.
All in all, one can say all of United’s 4 permanent signings under Ole Gunnar Solskjær have their fair share of strong points and are all vital cogs of a plan which has ambitions as high as being one of the best teams in the country and across Europe. Of course, this jigsaw puzzle still needs a few pieces to make it complete and complementary at the highest level, but it’s been a start nonetheless, and a pretty promising one as of now.
Written by Devesh Arora
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