With a strong faith in Manchester United’s young players, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has steered the Reds to four victories out of four in their pre-season campaign thus far.
Mason Greenwood and Jimmy Garner had already netted during the tour when 18-year-old Angel Gomes snuck one in against Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday in Shanghai.
Forward Tahith Chong has also been impressing, as well as Scott McTominay and new signings Dan James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Solskjaer can trust his kids
While it’s no surprise that Wan-Bissaka is looking the part already, the performances of United’s academy quartet are greatly encouraging. Every one of the nine goals on the club’s pre-season tour of Australia, Singapore and China has been scored or assisted by an academy graduate.
Before the 2-1 victory against Tottenham, Solskjaer was asked about the possibility of United failing to make any more signings before the August deadline. The Norwegian was positive, deeming it as an opportunity for the four or five youngsters looking to make their mark.
Gomes’ goal against Spurs was well deserved, having shown his superb technical ability in recycling possession in the previous games. He was given his debut by Jose Mourinho in May 2017 but then very few chances after that. He and his academy mates present an interesting option for Solskjaer. All four fit into the style that the United boss is trying to introduce. He has been clear that he wants to build his team around quick, young players who can counter-attack.
Each of Gomes, Greenwood, Chong and Garner have different qualities, and that’s what even more attractive about them. Solskjaer will look upon them as first-team options rather than youngsters who need a chance if they keep up this form.
“We’re taking everything the coaches say on board,” Gomes said. “I can’t even describe how it felt [to score against Tottenham], I saw it go in the back of the net and just wanted to go and celebrate with the fans, that’s why I slipped."
United still need a commanding centre-back
While the Reds are impressing with a fluid attack on the counter, defensive frailties remain blatantly obvious. Eric Bailly was forced off with an injury on Thursday and it’s yet another reminder that the Ivorian can never be the first choice at Old Trafford. He’s far too injury prone and if United had any sense, he would not be at the club by the start of next season.
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are equally as injury-prone while Axel Tuanzebe is young and Chris Smalling is not good enough. Victor Lindelof is the only good, reliable defender in United’s squad out of the six. There’s not a trophy-winning pairing in United’s first-choice line-up let alone in their squad over the course of the season.
Talks with Leicester City about a move for Harry Maguire continue but there’s no obvious sign of conclusion. A leader is needed, and even after that, more cover is necessary. Where United will turn if Maguire falls through is certainly not obvious. A late charge for Toby Alderweireld would have made sense but the £25 million release clause in his contract expires on Friday. Perhaps they’ll overpay for him at the end of the window just like they did for Marouane Fellaini in 2013. Koulibaly of Napoli is an option, but he’s not cheap either.
If United start yet another season without having signed a leader for their defence, they’re destined for another underwhelming year.
Pogba and McTominay the way forward for United
In midfield, two clear starters are presenting themselves. Paul Pogba hasn’t said another controversial since pre-season began after worrying and disrespectful comments about his future. He’s now performing at the expected level and working hard in these games.
He’s controlling the match while he’s on the pitch and showing intent for goal. Scott McTominay has played alongside him on a number of occasions and is working fantastically. He looks like a first-team player now rather than a young midfielder being given a chance. Credit must go to United’s coaching staff for forming another academy player who can be a part of the first team for at least a few years.
Solskjaer, just like United fans, will want to bring in another midfielder, with Sporting Lisbon’s Bruno Fernandes linked. That deal has been moving at a snail’s pace for the whole window, though, and the reliability of reports from Portugal are unknown.
If United do not sign a midfielder, who will play alongside Pogba and McTominay is a new question. Matic looks slow and uninventive, Fred may improve but offers very little in an attacking sense and United have lost Herrera on a free transfer.
Solskjaer style clear
The most important part of pre-season for a new (ish) manager is to look out for a style being implemented; something consistent throughout the various fixtures and the various combinations of players on the pitch.
That consistency is in United’s eagerness to press high up at the pitch. It was always expected after the blistering start Solskjaer made as interim manager, and he’s putting it in place well. The Reds look fit and ready to change the way they play this season.
When Paul Pogba sliced a good effort across the face of goal from long-range, it went out for a goal kick. Despite having been on the attack, his teammates stepped forward ready for Tottenham to restart proceedings. They were getting in position, but not by going backwards.
It may leave United open to errors and goal-scoring opportunities for a few months, but it’ll certainly be more entertaining and what the fans have been craving.
United lacking depth
With some key signings still waiting to be completed, United also look in stark need of some squad players. Some will come from the academy as aforementioned, but Solskjaer may have to wait for next summer to really strengthen the squad depth of the club.
If Maguire is signed then he will be first choice alongside Lindelof. Behind those two in the pecking order will be the unreliable set of Smalling and Jones or the inevitably injured Bailly and Rojo.
The second-half line-up against Tottenham showed some attacking inventiveness through Rashford and Gomes, but Lingard, Fred and Matic never caused problems for Spurs. United need people who can fill in for Martial, Rashford, James, Pogba, McTominay.