The cracks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer papered over with his bright start following his arrival at Manchester United have grown too large to ignore and possibly reached the foundations of this storied club.
In a full-blown late-season swoon, United look to stop the rot and play spoiler to Chelsea’s top-four hopes at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Barring a collapse by both Chelsea and Arsenal, Manchester United (19-7-9) will be starting next season in the Europa League for the third time in four years. The fabled giants are in absolutely wretched form, having dropped seven of nine matches in all competitions – their worst such nine-game stretch since going 1-1-7 in the 1962-63 season, which nearly ended in relegation from the First Division.
United do not have to worry about that desperate a plight, but the chasms they face from top six to top four to Premier League title contenders are growing deeper by the match. Solskjaer’s side played better in their 2-0 home derby loss to eternal rivals Manchester City on Wednesday than they did in their 4-0 hiding administered by Everton last Sunday, but the gaps in talent and cohesion were on clear display, especially on the offensive end.
It was the third time in five matches in all competitions United had one or no shots on target, an abject display that provided frustration at the Stretford End, where cries of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” often galvanise the side in red. They have gone 527 minutes without a goal in the run of play, a drought that stretches to Scott McTominay’s goal in the 13th minute of United’s 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton on April 2.
It has also been 280 minutes since United’s last goal, when Paul Pogba converted from the spot to give them a 2-1 victory over West Ham United a fortnight ago. The France international was again a lightning rod for controversy Wednesday as many pointed out his lack of backtracking versus City, but Solskjaer insists he wants the World Cup winner as part of the side to build around.
“You can’t guarantee anything in football,” Solskjaer said at his Friday news conference, “but, yes, I think Paul is going to be here 1/8next season 3/8. I can assure you that he is now very determined to succeed at Man United.
“That’s just the standards he’s set,” Solskjaer added, reminding reporters Pogba has totaled 16 goals and 11 assists. “He’s creating chances, scoring goals, he’s doing loads of work – and that’s just media, that’s supporters, it’s everyone, that we look to Paul: could you have done better?”
Another player many are asking if he could have done better is keeper David De Gea, who had another forgettable match Wednesday. It has been a rough 10 months for the Spain No. 1, starting with his average play for La Roja at the World Cup, but the pressure has intensified in recent weeks following his howler in the Champions League second leg against Lionel Messi and Barcelona that killed any United hopes for a comeback.
In the last two matches, De Gea has been called out for being out of position on a long-range goal by Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, and while many fault him for City’s first by Bernardo Silva, the second he allowed to Leroy Sane was far more concerning. Still, Solskjaer has no plans to swap out De Gea – who still has yet to commit his long-term future to United as the two sides continue to wrangle over financial terms — with Sergio Romero for the run-in.
“No. Not at all,” Solskjaer responded when directly asked about dropping De Gea. “I trust David and he’s, for me, been the best player United have had in the last six or seven years. He’s been absolutely outstanding and going through tough patches is just part of a footballer’s career. David will be fine, no worries.”
United are in danger of failing to beat any of their Big Six peers at home this season, and they are 1-3-5 in those matches overall. They need a result in this match to avoid equaling the fewest points in a season in those 10 high-profile matches, with them gaining only six in 2013-14 under David Moyes in the first season after Sir Alex Ferguson.
In the Premier League era, United claimed an average of 18.125 of the possible 30 points under Ferguson when all six teams were in the top flight. That number has dipped to 12.8 in the six seasons since the Scot retired after lifting the Premier League trophy in 2013.
Solskjaer could get a boost in the midfield with the potential return of Ander Herrera, who has missed the last six matches with a hamstring injury. There are also reports that Herrera, who is out of contract at season’s end, has agreed to terms on a deal with Paris-Saint Germain.
McTominay faces a late fitness test for the second straight contest after missing out Wednesday. It is also unknown if Solskjaer will again play a five-man backline like he did against City, with Matteo Darmian getting a rare spot of match action.
Chelsea (20-7-8) have not lacked for drama throughout Maurizio Sarri’s first season at Stamford Bridge, and their hold on fourth is tenuous at best as the Pensioners are one point better than Arsenal and three than United with three matches to play. And even as a potential transfer ban looms this summer, one gets the sense the worst is behind both Sarri and the side as they chase a Champions League berth both domestically and in the Europa League.
The Blues are coming off a chaotic 2-2 mid-week draw at home to Burnley in which all four goals were scored in the first 24 minutes. N’Golo Kante and Gonzalo Higuain scored two minutes apart to give Chelsea a short-lived lead, with the latter netting his first goal in six matches. But the draw came at a high price as both Kante and Callum Hudson-Odoi were forced off with injuries.
Sarri was banished to the stands for the final 15 minutes, irritated by what Chelsea assistant Gianfranco Zola described as the gaffer being “offended” by someone from the Burnley staff. But the final quarter-hour was intensely frustrating for the Pensioners as the Clarets resolutely played behind the ball for a point crucial to their Premier League survival hopes.
Hudson-Odoi’s injury was the more severe of the two, with the 18-year-old starlet suffering a ruptured Achilles that will sideline him into the 2019-20 season. Kante is likely out for this match due to a hamstring injury, but the double injury blow ahead of this pivotal match is a challenge for Sarri and the club to overcome.
“The operation of Callum went in the right way. He will be back here in one or two days,” Sarri said in his Friday news conference. “He needs time now. Callum is a very strong young man, physically and mentally. I am sure he will be able to return better than before.”
The two absences open the door for either Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley in the midfield and Pedro or Willian on the wing. With Chelsea’s first-leg Europa League semifinal tie at Eintract Frankfurt on Thursday, Higuain will likely be preferred over Olivier Giroud to lead the line. All four of Higuain’s goals in league play since his January arrival have come against bottom-six sides.
Chelsea have been a Jekyll-and-Hide side against the other members of the Big Six – positive at home and pitiful on the road. The Pensioners have dropped all four of their road matches against their peers by a combined 13-1 scoreline, highlighted by their 6-0 capitulation at the Etihad to Manchester City.
“We need to take a step forward because in the second part of the season away we have lost too many matches, sometimes in the wrong way: Arsenal, Tottenham, City of course, not in Liverpool,” Sarri noted. “We need to face difficulties because for sure against these teams away you have to face difficulties. We need to be able to stay in the match in the 10 minutes of difficulty. Sometimes in the second part of the season we lost the match in 10 minutes.”
Chelsea grabbed a last-gasp 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture in London, with Barkley’s goal in the 96th minute getting a split of the points and ruining a second-half brace by United’s Anthony Martial.
United got a measure of revenge in February with a 2-0 victory in the fifth round of the FA Cup through goals by Herrera and Pogba. They are 2-3-0 in their last five home matches versus Chelsea in league play and 5-4-1 in the last 10 overall at Old Trafford.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 0, Chelsea 2.
(Eden Hazard/Callum Hudson-Odoi photos courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)
(David De Gea photo courtesy Manchester United official Twitter account)