Should Solskjaer switch the Manchester United midfield to a double-pivot?
Background image: Acruz319, CC BY-SA 4.0
It was a disappointing start to the season for Manchester United - before the encounter against Leicester City on Saturday. The Foxes are on the rise under new boss Brendan Rodgers. Having started the campaign on a strong note themselves, many were already tipping them to give the big six a fight for their money this season. As it happened, United had a long list of injuries to contend with. Starters like Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba were all sidelined for the game. A consecutive home loss felt on the cards.
But after going three games without a win the team put up a disciplined performance against a very good side to emerge with all three points. For a team that has looked unconvincing after the surprise 4-0 whitewash of Chelsea on the opening weekend of the new campaign, things looked rather different. Looking at the line-up, there was a clear factor to pinpoint as being instrumental to the performance; the midfield partnership of Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic.
While the Scotland international has been a constant feature since the season began, Matic has been on the periphery. This led to the Serbian expressing his desire to play regularly in an interview during the international break. He had his wish granted as he was put in the starting XI against Leicester. For once, United looked assured and stable. The team was hardly threatened by the visitors who are well-known for the danger posed by the likes of Jamie Vardy and his cohorts...
Juan Mata was put in front of the duo who protected the back four excellently, leaving the Spaniard to provide service to the front line. The stability of the team against such a potent opponent produced a clean sheet. That suggests manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has found his perfect combination at the base of midfield. Jesse Lingard has been the subject of criticism from some quarters recently - with regard to what he really offers the team. The Englishman has failed to either score or assist a goal since January...
His inclusion in the line up usually leaves United’s defence exposed as Pogba is not usually effective in the defensive part of the game. But with Matic and McTominay giving sufficient cover to the defensive line, Pogba can be freed to concentrate on offensive play. The Frenchman is known for delivering inch-perfect passes that can unlock any defence. Featuring in place of Mata gives the 26-year-old the opportunity to provide top-notch service to the front line.
Both of Marcus Rashford and Martial could greatly benefit from such, effectively converting to provide the much-needed goals. A midfield trio of Pogba, Matic and McTominay will provide the right linkage for both defence and attack. Such balance will see the team performing better overall. With the competition for the top four quite stiff, United will have to do better than it has done in recent games against all of Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton.
With Liverpool and Manchester City expected to contest for the title, Tottenham and Chelsea have also picked up the pace for a top-four finish. Arsenal cannot be written off either, despite their struggles. Beating two of these teams to a top-four place will not be easy, but performances like the one against Leicester show it’s achievable. And who knows? If Man City’s collapse at Norwich tells us anything, it's that even challenging for the title could be an outside possibility.