Even as an eternal optimist, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t hide his anger after Manchester United’s defeat to Bournemouth.

The Norwegian’s levels of positivity have been seemingly limitless since taking charge at Old Trafford, but there’s nothing like a bad result to reassess reality.

Three wins on the bounce – described as a ‘half-run’ by Solskjaer – had alleviated some of the pressure on his position and reassured some increasingly discontented supporters that a plan was in place at Theatre of Dreams. But the credit earned from victories against Partizan Belgrade, 19th-placed Norwich and a weakened Chelsea side was quickly wiped with an alarmingly poor display on a blustery day on the south coast.

Solskjaer, glass half full as always, insisted his side displayed a ‘great mentality’ at the Vitality Stadium. There was less analysis of Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s defending for Joshua King’s goal though, nor of his side’s patchy away form. But there was a telling criticism in the Norwegian’s appraisal when he accused his front four of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Andreas Pereira of ‘flattering to deceive’.



Solskjaer criticises his side’s attack after Bournemouth defeat, 2nd November 2019

‘I think it was like the whole team, we started well but we were lacking a bit of end product and quality. That doesn’t just apply to Andreas. The front four looked promising but flattered to deceive. It looked like we could create chances but didn’t have the last pass or finish. That’s something we need to improve on’. 

Results dictate mood but even at a Jekyll and Hyde club like United, Saturday’s defeat felt like a case of one step forward, two steps back. Solskjaer would be the first to argue that assessing progress is a nuanced process but the league table doesn’t lie and nor do results. The club have managed just three league wins all season, scoring just 13 times in 11 games. Their chronic lack of creativity has left them languishing in 10th and ten points behind the top four.

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Their results have undoubtedly been impacted by injuries and no player has been missed more than Paul Pogba. Some romantic suggestions during United’s ‘half-run’ claimed Pogba’s absence was no longer being felt. That the process of the Frenchman’s exit from the club had already started and he was no longer relied upon in the same manner as he had been previously, in part due to the supposedly burgeoning partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield.  But the truth is that Pogba is more important now to the club than at any time since his return in 2016.

Against Bournemouth, United started brightly. Daniel James had the beating of full-back Diego Rico and Andreas Pereira was being afforded far too much space behind Bournemouth’s midfield. But a failure to find the opening goal ensured the game transitioned into an almost inevitable pattern in which Bournemouth scored first and United failed to respond. Where once there was grass in front of Bournemouth’s defence, now there was Jefferson Lerma and Philip Billing. United have now lost all six of the Premier League away games in which they’ve fallen behind under Solskjaer.

When the game is open and the opposition need a goal as much as United do, the likes of Daniel James, McTominay and Rashford thrive on the amount of space afforded to them. But United’s problem is that they’re short on ideas when the game is not played on their terms.That they so regularly fail to muster a response to falling behind points to a far bigger problem than any accusations about ‘lacking character’. Primarily, it’s due to a lack of quality and Pogba remains the club’s only world class outfield player.

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Even withstanding a torturous four months under Jose Mourinho last term, Pogba finished the season as United’s top goalscroer, top for assists, top for chances created, top for progressive passes and top for through balls. It’s exactly that type of creativity, that bravery to play a risky pass when others side with the safer option, that United have missed during Pogba’s absence.

Pogba has managed just six appearances this term (Picture: Getty)

Any hope of a quick return have been quashed by Pogba this week. The Frenchman is set to spend another six days in a cast before a further two weeks of training before a return to match action.

United were reluctant to put a time frame on the midfielder’s absence but privately accepted it would take around two months for the midfielder to recover from what has been a persistent ankle complaint in the last six months. The nature of the injury has frustrated Pogba, as the conservative approach means monotonous underwater therapy sessions and endless hours with conditioning coaches. It’s part of the reason that the club allowed Pogba to visit Dubai during the recent international break, to give the midfielder a mental break from Manchester.



Pogba on watching United during his time out with injury, November 2nd 2019

‘It is the worst. After, it is not easy to see my team-mates go to training or on the field You train inside, you want to return to help your team but when you are injured it is not easy [psychologically]. The most important thing is to heal properly.’

Perhaps inevitably, Solskjaer has not pined for Pogba during his absence and instead has spoken about the development of McTominay and Fred.

McTominay in particular has thrived. The Scot has emerged from the accusations under Mourinho that he was merely a political pawn to become one of the first names on the teamsheet. The midfielder’s energy in midfield has more than made up for the loss of Ander Herrera, while he is one of only five players with a goal to his name this term.

Solskjaer’s decision to start the season with McTominay over Nemanja Matic was a symbolic one, but the 22-year-old has repaid the manager’s faith. The United badge has weighed heavy on the shoulders of players with far more quality and experience than McTominay but he is one of the few players in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era that hasn’t appeared overawed by the task at hand.

Few at the club felt McTominay would become a first-team regular but he continues to dumbfound those that doubted him. His two goals this term – both powerful efforts – have shown he’s retained the eye for goal he displayed as a striker coming through the club’s academy.

McTominay has stepped up in Pogba’s absence but is no long-term solution (Picture: Getty)

Frustrated by his side’s misses from the spot this season [Rashford’s penalty against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge made it 4 from 8], Solskjaer recently had the entire squad put through their paces from 12 yards. McTominay dispatched every spot kick and has been assigned penalty duties should Rashford or Martial be unavailable.

Nevertheless, just 13 goals in 11 league games this term tells its own story. Other than McTominay, just Mason Greenwood, Rashford, Martial and Daniel James have got on the scoresheet this season. The average age of that quintet is just 21. A club of Manchester United’s size cannot afford to rely on such an inexperienced band of players.

It’s why Solskjaer is interested in signing Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, to provide more creativity from deep and to alleviate some of the goalscoring burden on his young forwards.

But before any move for the Dane is the need to get Pogba back. It’s likely to be the Frenchman’s final season at Old Trafford and, while Solskjaer will hope his time at the club can extend beyond Pogba’s, he needs the midfielder to ensure he makes it through to the next phase.

MORE: Nemanja Matic likely to leave Manchester United in January with club and player interested in exit





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