There was a point during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s post-match press conference at Leicester on Saturday when he lost his train of thought and apologised for ‘rambling on’.
His words had become incoherent, rather like his lacklustre Manchester United team as they crashed to a 4-2 defeat at only the beginning of a brutal run of fixtures.
While Leicester had a clear and effective game plan which their opponents simply couldn’t cope with, United were listless and this time weren’t bailed out by one of their superstars.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reacts after Manchester United went down 4-2 to Leicester on Saturday
It was another lacklustre performance by a United side struggling for cohesion and identity
United’s second loss of the Premier League season left them sixth, already trailing their rivals
It only ratchets up the pressure on Solskjaer as his United side, for all their hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, clearly remain some distance behind Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Ed Woodward and the club’s hierarchy will continue to insist that Solskjaer, who agreed a new contract only in July, will not be sacked. The official stance is that they still trust in the club legend’s process.
Whether that remains the case if United fail to get anything from upcoming matches against Atalanta (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Watford, Villarreal and Chelsea is open to question.
After another sorry weekend, we analyse some of the major problems that Solskjaer needs to get a handle on if he is to steady the ship at Old Trafford.
Tossing away leads
Solskjaer has made a big play about restoring some of United’s traditions and standards with the occasional late smash-and-grab winner suggesting he has restored that Fergie-style insistence the team plays right until the final whistle.
But one recurring theme is the complete inverse of United tradition – the fact 38 points have been dropped from winning positions in almost three years under Solskjaer.
It happened again on Saturday with United taking the lead thanks to Mason Greenwood’s 19th-minute goal, an advantage that lasted just 12 minutes.
They also managed to haul themselves level at 2-2 thanks to Marcus Rashford, only for Jamie Vardy to restore Leicester’s lead a mere 54 seconds later.
Harry Maguire reacts after his error led to Youri Tielemans chipping Leicester into the lead
United committed the cardinal sin of conceding to Jamie Vardy just 54 seconds after scoring
It certainly could be worse – in the same time span, Tottenham have dropped 50 points after leading and Arsenal also 38.
But nobody would consider either of them to currently be title challengers. Chelsea have dropped 32, Man City 31 and Liverpool 28 during the same period.
It might not seem a huge margin but in a close title race, such lapses in concentration could easily be the difference between winning the trophy and finishing second.
Solskjaer will need to hammer home to his players again that they must remain completely switched on at all times. Conceding immediately after scoring is one of the biggest crimes a football team can commit.
Mason Greenwood fired United into an early lead but they were again unable to capitalise
Marcus Rashford came off the bench to equalise at 2-2 but United conceded again right away
It took only one diagonal pass from the back out wide, one horrendously reckless tackle from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, one little touch on to Ayoze Perez in behind and one cut-back for Jamie Vardy to spear the ball home.
There was no way back for United from there and it followed them throwing away leads in matches against Young Boys and Everton already this season.
It was the same story at Leicester last season, likewise against Liverpool, Fulham, Everton, Tottenham and others. Something needs to change.
United’s players have committed seven errors that have led to their opponents having a shot on goal so far this season. This is the joint-highest in the Premier League with Wolves.
It partially explains why Solskjaer’s side have kept just one clean sheet so far (away to Wolves). By contrast Man City have kept six in the league so far, Chelsea and Liverpool five apiece.
Harry Maguire, rushed back into the team by Solskjaer despite clearly not being fully fit, was at fault for Leicester’s equaliser after Kelechi Iheanacho whipped the ball off his toes as he waited for a David de Gea pass.
Maguire was also left looking like a statue as Patson Daka peeled off him to tap home Leicester’s late fourth goal. It did make you wonder why Maguire was risked when Eric Bailly was warming the bench.
Maguire wasn’t in shot as Patson Daka lost him at a free-kick to tap home Leicester’s fourth
United’s skipper didn’t look fully fit having just returned to the side after an ankle injury
Paul Pogba didn’t exactly spare his team-mates post-match when he said: ‘We have not found the problem, conceding easy goals, stupid goals.’
It comes as a blow to Solskjaer that £41million summer signing Raphael Varane is sidelined with a groin injury during this tough set of fixtures.
The France international needs to forge his central defensive partnership with Maguire and now this will take even longer, with Victor Lindelof back in the team.
At least Lindelof and Maguire understand one another but both have weaknesses that can cost United dear. Maguire looked sluggish against his old club, ruffled by Leicester’s ferocious pressing. Lindelof lacks authority in the air.
The mistakes need to be cut out of United’s game otherwise they’ll continue to be punished by good opponents.
Raphael Varane’s injury, picked up at the UEFA Nations League with France, is a major blow
Aaron Wan-Bissaka takes out Jamie Vardy with an outrageous challenge at the King Power
Reliance on individuals
Brendan Rodgers took the Leicester job some three months after Solskjaer came in at United. In that time, Leicester have twice missed out on the Champions League by agonisingly thin margins but won the FA Cup.
More than anything else, however, you recognise Leicester as a Rodgers side. They work relentlessly, apply pressure in packs and are clinical in taking their chances. They always have an identity and a clear game plan.
Solskjaer’s United, by contrast, do not. Especially in the early stages of this season, it feels like they are reliant on certain individuals to win them games rather than the collective.
Mason Greenwood got them three points at Wolves with a late goal back in August, Jesse Lingard’s strike and De Gea’s penalty save got them over the line at West Ham and it needed a 96th-minute Cristiano Ronaldo special to beat Villarreal.
Jesse Lingard’s late goal spared United’s blushes at West Ham – but only after a penalty save
Just imagine if these goals hadn’t gone in – Solskjaer really would be in the mire, both domestically and in Europe.
These goals have got them out of jail but also serve to disguise performances that are far from lucid or convincing. Worryingly, United had a fairly soft set of games to start the season. Now the real test is beginning.
With Ronaldo, Varane and Jadon Sancho all arriving over the summer and needing to settle in and with Marcus Rashford only just back from injury, there has been disruption.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s dramatic late winner against Villarreal masked a lacklustre performance
But Solskjaer’s United just cannot shed the sense that they remain in transition – even after three years of his management. Not quite there yet, relying on individuals, just short of being a cohesive and consistent team.
Worryingly for the manager, this was supposed to be the season when all that transition became culmination and fruition, when they finally won some silverware. But it isn’t looking likely at the moment.
It won’t get any easier!
The Leicester game was only the start of a demanding run for Manchester United that could see the pressure increase further on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
On Wednesday night, they host Atalanta in the Champions League and then play at home to in-form Liverpool on Sunday.
Trips to Tottenham and Atalanta follow before a meeting with another title contender in Manchester City.
United then face three away games against Watford, Villarreal and Chelsea.
Ronaldo is a passenger
It’s hard to dispute that Ronaldo has made an impact since returning to United back in August. Two goals against Newcastle that electrified Old Trafford, another at West Ham and two in Europe against Young Boys and Villarreal.
But shoehorning the 36-year-old star into the team has presented some headaches.
Firstly, there’s the fact that Ronaldo will expect to start each and every game or else gets sulky and also demands to play centre forward, which eases out the unlucky Edinson Cavani and others.
Then there’s the fact that when out of possession, Ronaldo simply doesn’t do the tracking back and defensive donkey work that have become part of the modern attacker’s game.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a match-winner but he refuses to cover the ground or work defensively
In those two Champions League games, Ronaldo covered an average of 3.7 miles – among the 72 forwards to have played in the first two matchdays of the group phase, only five covered less ground.
Even Lionel Messi, another player not exactly renowned for tenacious defensive pressing, covered an average of 5.3 miles, while his PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe ran 5.5.
Now, obviously, Ronaldo does have to be in the optimal positions to score and create chances at all times but it puts strain on his team-mates to always be carrying him when under pressure.
The midfielders, in particular, have needed to step up their work rate to compensate and it is a bit baffling how someone so fit doesn’t cover more ground.
Ronaldo struggled to make much of an impression as Leicester’s defenders kept him covered
In poor performances such as Saturday’s, when Ronaldo contributed next to nothing going forward, it just makes it look worse.
It has been ever thus with Ronaldo though – he was criticised at Real Madrid for not getting back and Gary Neville reminded everyone that it was the same during his first United spell.
‘In 2008, Ji-Sung Park, Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, they all worked like trojans to make up for Cristiano in terms of what he was doing,’ Neville said on his Sky Sports podcast recently.
‘You’re almost carrying a player when you’re out of possession. But you forgive that because of his greatness and his ability to win games.’
That will almost certainly remain the case but it’s just given Solskjaer another problem to solve.
Rarely has United’s urgent need for a top class holding midfielder been more exposed than at Leicester on Saturday.
Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba were just bypassed all afternoon, unable to get a grip in the key areas and link defence with attack.
Both were anonymous as Leicester swarmed United and they did that even without the excellent Wilfred Ndidi, currently out with a hamstring injury.
Pogba started the season brilliantly but we never really know whether he wants to play on the left side of the attack, where he has often been effective, or in central midfield.
Nemanja Matic (right) just wasn’t able to gain control of the midfield battle against Leicester
Paul Pogba (left) and Bruno Fernandes (right) both struggled to make much of an impression
Matic, at 33, unfortunately looks unable to stand the pace of a Premier League skirmish any more, while Fred has never looked a United class midfielder.
Scott McTominay came on late on when he probably should have started instead of Matic and all the while Donny van de Beek warms the bench in bewilderment. Still only the six Premier League minutes for him this season.
What Solskjaer would do for an Ndidi, let alone a N’Golo Kante, in his midfield. Or a Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips type figure to anchor things and allow Pogba to do his thing going forward without fear of being hopelessly overrun.
It could easily be the one missing piece of the jigsaw but unfortunately for the manager another trophyless season will probably drift by before the problem is addressed.
Donny van de Beek only got onto the pitch during the warm-ups as he was left out yet again
Sancho hasn’t got going
Not every new signing is working. Jadon Sancho cost United £73m but is still without a goal or an assist in his first 10 appearances and is struggling to make any impact.
He completed 65 very average minutes at Leicester before being replaced by the returning Rashford, who scored 15 minutes or so later. With Greenwood also a very able wide attacker, Sancho may well lose his place soon.
In 299 Premier League minutes for United, Sancho has created just eight chances and had only 18 touches in the opposition box, which seems remarkably low even for a wide player.
£73million summer arrival Jadon Sancho has struggled to make any impact for United so far
Marcus Rashford, who replaced Sancho after 65 minutes on Saturday, went on to score a goal
Naturally, he needs time to adjust to a new team and a new league after moving from Borussia Dortmund but the scrutiny will come soon and questions will be asked about his output.
To be honest, Sancho is fortunate most of the attention has been on Ronaldo since the summer, which has allowed some of his sub-par displays to go under the radar.
It’s unlikely such a gifted player will be down for too long and his first United goal could easily spark a flood. But he just hasn’t got going yet and needs to rediscover his spark.