“United were punished for not taking their chances.” Bleated Robbie Savage in the commentary box. The Welshman was right, of course, as Manchester United missed a host of opportunities when crashing out 2-1 to Sevilla in the Europa League Semi Final. Rashford looked out of sorts, as he has done since English football emerged from lockdown; Mason Greenwood, a youngster who has received deserved praise in his breakout season, seemed unready for such an occasion; and, Anthony Martial – a leading light for United this season – seemed to revert to the old Martial, ineffective and frustrating.
The reaction to the defeat on social media was predictable. When faced with a bad result or two, most United fans tend to list transfer demands – Ed Woodward tends to trend on Twitter after a bitter defeat for United. At the top of almost everyone’s list is Jadon Sancho, who it seems will be the transfer saga of the summer. A fine player, one for whom United will likely pay dearly despite the posturing in the media, Sancho has the talent to have a transformative effect on United’s attack.
And yet, the more pressing area of concern might just be in defence. On the one hand, things look okay at the back: United have kept 27 clean sheets in all competitions this season – the most of any team in Europe’s top five leagues. The 36 goals conceded in the league is just marginally higher than Liverpool (33) and Manchester City (35).
Maguire has been everpresent
In Harry Maguire, United have found a player who seems to be immune to injury and fatigue – he played every minute of every game in the Premier League this season, and some statisticians have claimed that he has had more game time than any outfield player on the planet this season (this stat is hard to verify). Maguire’s everpresent role is a far cry from the constant rotation and propensity towards injury of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo.
However, while the stats might say one thing about United’s defence, the evidence before our eyes should worry fans of Ole Gunner Solskjaer’s side. The manner of both goals conceded against Sevilla was worrying, but the second was particularly unforgivable. Seven United players were in the box when Jesus Navas sent in a limp cross to Luuk De Jong, and the Dutchman couldn’t believe his luck when he received the ball uncontested and sent it past David De Gea. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof both had the good grace to look ashamed, and United fans will perhaps take heart that captain-in-waiting, Bruno Fernandes, gave Lindelof a tongue lashing à la Roy Keane in his heyday.
But we have seen the same scenarios play out several times this season. The late equaliser conceded against Southampton sticks out as it nearly cost United their place in the Top 4. However, a more worrying instance was Junior Stanislas’ goal in early July. Yes, United went on to win the game 5-2, but the manner in which Stanislas left members of one of the most expensively-assembled defences in the history of football flat-footed should concern United fans.
A centre back has been touted as the answer to United’s problems, with a growing consensus that Victor Lindelof is not the elite defender that some felt he would be. A left-back is also on the list of fans’ demands, with neither Luke Shaw nor Brandon Williams looking like the player United need long term in that position.
Bookmakers believe United are closing the gap on City and Liverpool
However, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has largely escaped criticism this season, and the right-back’s performances merit more scrutiny. United are 8/1 with MansionBet football markets to win the Premier League next season, which is still a long way behind Liverpool and Manchester City. To really challenge that pair, United need full-backs with attacking prowess. In his career so far in the Premier League (77 games), Wan-Bissaka has achieved eight of what the statisticians call “Big Chances Created”. That’s a paltry number for a player in a position that has become integral to the attacks of elite teams.
But if it is accepted that Wan-Bissaka is a player United bought for his defending abilities rather than attacking, then there are also alarming signs there, too. The young Englishman is a fine tackler of the ball; there can be no doubt about that. But his positional sense leaves a lot to be desired. He is just 22-years-old, so we do not want to go too hard on a player who could turn out to be one of the best English right-backs of this generation, but he often cuts the figure of an arsonist credited with putting out a fire he has started. With Bissaka, you can’t help but think about Xabi Alonso’s critique of the English game and tackling. In short Alonso, as well as others like Franco Baresi and Paulo Maldini, claim that tackling is something you do when something goes wrong. Aaron Wan-Bissaka does a lot of tackling.
What, then, do United do in the late summer transfer window? In all likelihood, very little. The club has been linked with a host of centre-backs, but it’s difficult to say with any certainty whether any would have the sort of transformative quality seen with Virgil Van Dijk’s arrival at Liverpool. Solskjaer might look at the relatively young age of his defence – Phil Jones is the oldest defender in the squad at 28 – and believe they can grow into positions than tend to favour maturity. At the moment, though, United’s defence seems sufficient enough for a good team; changes might be needed if they are to become a great one.