Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reportedly has three games to save his job at Old Trafford after the weekend humiliation at the hands of Liverpool, starting with Saturday’s tricky-looking clash at Tottenham, live on Sky Sports – so who should the Norwegian select for the trip to north London?
Solskjaer has come under huge pressure this week following Sunday’s 5-0 home thrashing to arch-rivals Liverpool, a result that has also put the focus firmly on the manager’s team selections so far this season.
United splashed the cash last summer in order to sign England forward Jadon Sancho and experienced France defender Raphael Varane and, of course, to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to the club.
However, with United currently languishing down in seventh place in the Premier League having lost three of their opening nine league fixtures, questions are already being asked about those purchases and whether Solskjaer has been making the right line-up calls.
Heading into the weekend, though, the under-pressure United boss knows he has to get his starting XI right for the trip to Spurs on Saturday Night Football, or he could be out of a job – and this is the side our writers have gone for, while why not pick your team too below…
Give up on trying to be Man City – Ron Walker
“We should always try to stamp our authority on the game at home,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Sunday’s debacle. It comes across as demanding high standards of his players and I’m sure that’s how it was meant, but it’s bordering on the delusional.
Manchester United are not a pressing team. The make-up of their squad makes that clear straight away and the leaks to the media this week reveal how little work goes into the philosophy, but far more damning was their performance against Liverpool when Cristiano Ronaldo’s pressure statistics and his own desire to play front-foot football seemed to go to his head.
Now, Manchester United aren’t at Old Trafford this weekend so perhaps his outlook would be different anyway. Regardless, it should be. Dropping Cristiano Ronaldo seems like solving one problem by creating another, so instead United should show some tactical fluidity which negates the need to attempt a high press they’re both incapable and unwilling to commit to.
Real Madrid won three straight Champions League titles with Ronaldo in the team with tactically intellectual Zinedine Zidane able to accommodate his defensive deficiencies while making the most of his attacking strengths. I don’t think personnel change is necessary, or particularly helpful given United’s squad, but having a strong defensive base in midfield with Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic acting as a double pivot is their best chance at keeping things secure in a 4-2-3-1.
When United lose the ball, reverting to a flat 4-4-1-1 out of possession is workable thanks to Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho’s energy and pace allowing them to transition quickly, to keep United solid without needing to asking Ronaldo to engage in a press he never has done in his career. This is the same system Zidane employed during much of his first spell at the Bernabeu to great effect.
It won’t be the prettiest Manchester United philosophy of all time, because Matic and McTominay are solid but not great facilitators to feed the front four. But it should be a lot more robust than last Sunday, and still has the attacking personnel to damage a Spurs side who are there to be got at.
4-2-3-1: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Varane, Shaw; McTominay, Matic; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Ronaldo
Solskjaer must call upon those he trusts – Ben Grounds
If Solskjaer has been told he has three games to save his job, a fiendish trip to Atalanta in between games with Tottenham and Manchester City certainly do not represent the ideal trio to weld together a fractured dressing room.
That said, Spurs have their own problems. That is not a camp that has universally bought into their new manager’s methods, either.
For all the criticism levelled at his team selection against Liverpool, Solskjaer still has some credit left over from collecting big away wins to go with a victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford just prior to the first lockdown in March 2020.
Paul Pogba’s suspension limits what can be done to address an imbalance made clear even in victory against Atalanta.
It should be pointed out that the Frenchman had a positive impact off the bench against Tottenham the season before last and he was excellent in this very fixture from the start back in April, but given the continued uncertainty over his future, his ban removes one conundrum that is no closer to being solved.
The spectre of serial winner Antonio Conte looms large over Solskjaer, to such an extent that some players may already be considering how much they would improve under his tutelage. Ole must therefore call upon those he fully trusts, and only he will know the answer to that.
To get as far as Bergamo on Tuesday, Solskjaer must stick to his principles and challenge his players to use the humiliation of last Sunday as a catalyst for change. The motivation should always be there when Liverpool come to Old Trafford, of course, but having reached rock bottom, calling on the same players to show their true face wouldn’t be the worst possible option.
Calls to drop players who are out of form is fine, but what is the alternative? Donny van de Beek has made four Premier League starts since his arrival in the summer of 2020. Raphael Varane’s absence has exacerbated the defensive problems but rushing players back to fitness didn’t work for Harry Maguire at Leicester, and a further setback would be catastrophic.
This is no time to panic. Regardless of whether he is deemed to be qualified for the job, Solskjaer has fought himself out of a corner before. Now he needs his warriors to come out fighting for him.
Edinson Cavani was a nuisance throughout the 3-1 win here last term – on the scoresheet and named man of the match by Gary Neville – and playing the Uruguayan through the middle with Bruno Fernandes sitting slighter deeper is a viable option.
Cristiano Ronaldo can be moved to the left with a thoroughly wound up Jadon Sancho being played in his correct position down the right. Spurs have shown themselves to be less effective during the second half of recent matches, so having the pace of Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford in reserve could pay dividends as the game opens up later on.
4-3-3: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw; Fred, McTominay, Fernandes; Ronaldo, Sancho, Cavani
Don’t expect mass changes, but Ole can tinker – Charlotte Marsh
Saturday’s game against Tottenham has one very simple task – go some way to make up for the horrendous performance against Liverpool.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described the results as ‘one his darkest days’ as Man Utd manager, one of his heaviest defeats came in a 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham last season. After last weekend, that result will also be fresh in the mind.
The United boss reportedly has three games to save his job but he has himself hamstrung slightly in terms of team selection. Paul Pogba is suspended for the next three domestic games – which will stretch over the international break – and there is still a question mark over Raphael Varane’s fitness.
However, if the centre-back is fit, he will almost certainly play. Manchester United have struggled without him, conceding 11 goals in the three games he has missed. With Harry Maguire also picking up an injury before the international break, the pair haven’t had a chance to solidify that partnership.
Luke Shaw has also looked a shadow of his former self in recent weeks, and will be disappointed with his performance against Liverpool. He won’t be ousted from left-back, but must start to rediscover his form.
In attack, Cristiano Ronaldo’s ability to press has consistently been called into question – some are debating whether it actually matters or not – but the fact remains that he is still United’s most credible goal threat. Two late winners in successive Champions League games has proven that and it would be a surprise to see him dropped against Tottenham.
However, the introduction of Edinson Cavani could bring something else going forward. Despite playing a mostly sidelined role this season, the striker has looked sharp as well as a nuisance in the box – he should have scored a wonderful headed chance against Liverpool on Sunday.
The fact remains that whatever XI Solskjaer does choose this weekend, he needs them to put in a big performance, especially against a really rather lacklustre Tottenham team. He has the majority of his first choice squad available and I wouldn’t expect too much to change, although fans will be expecting to see changes.
4-3-3: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Varane, Shaw; Fred, McTominay, Fernandes; Ronaldo, Cavani, Rashford
Time for changes as Solskjaer scrambles for solutions – Adam Bate
We are in the endgame now. That is usually the time when managers start picking teams that might seem inexplicable in the aftermath as they desperately scramble for something that works. Some will say it is to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s credit that he has kept calm.
He named an unchanged side for the defeat to Liverpool after somehow coming out on top in that chaotic game against Atalanta but surely it is the time for something more drastic now. If only to show that such underperformance in unacceptable, change is needed.
Luke Shaw has been struggling for form and fitness but is still picked ahead of Alex Telles – despite the Brazilian scoring a fine goal in his most recent appearance against Villarreal.
Telles might not be the long-term solution at left-back but if standards are to be maintained there needs to be a more obvious link between performance and selection. He should start.
The same argument might be made about Harry Maguire in the middle of defence as his wretched form continues but with Raphael Varane said to be available again, there is at least the opportunity to reunite the pair. Time for those two to take responsibility.
Options in midfield are limited by Paul Pogba’s suspension but there is still the chance for Solskjaer to do something differently there – perhaps surprisingly Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay have not started a single game together this season.
But the big decisions are in attack and while there has been a reluctance to pick Edinson Cavani alongside Cristiano Ronaldo so far, that needs to change too. The Uruguayan’s movement belies his age and should benefit Jadon Sancho as well as Ronaldo.
It is tough on Mason Greenwood but he could still make an impact off the bench at Tottenham. Sancho and Cavani are yet to start a game together in any competition this season and their energy from the outset is worth a try. Anything is worth a try now.
4-3-3: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Maguire, Telles; McTominay, Matic, Fernandes; Sancho, Cavani, Ronaldo
Call on your tried-and-trusted performers, but with a refresh too – Pete Smith
It’s crisis time for Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a win at Tottenham vital if they are to rebuild confidence and belief in the camp ahead of the looming Manchester derby with City at Old Trafford at the start of November.
At moments like this Solskjaer will need some of his most-trusted players to stand up and deliver. That starts with captain Harry Maguire, who must put his awful showing against Liverpool behind him quickly. Raphael Varane has returned to full training and needs to be fast-tracked back into this side to give the England defender some support.
Bruno Fernandes also needs licence to create, arrive in the box and generally pull the strings for this United side as he did in their best moments of last season. A No 10 role in a 4-2-3-1 gives him the opportunity to do that, with the energy, skill, and speed of Jadon Sancho and Jesse Lingard flanking him in support of Cristiano Ronaldo.
But this is also a moment when change can refresh the team. Luke Shaw could benefit from a break after his nightmare against Liverpool, with Alex Telles waiting in the wings. More dramatically, this could be the time for Solskjaer to turn to Donny van de Beek.
United need balance. Scott McTominay can anchor the midfield when Tottenham are on the attack, but they must be better with the ball – and when you need a player who can link play, treasure possession, and build through the lines, outcast Van de Beek ticks those boxes.
He’s been harshly excluded by Solskjaer since joining the club, but if he’s given the opportunity, he will be motivated to seize this moment and kick start his United career when the team need some inspiration most.
4-2-3-1: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Maguire, Telles; McTominay, Van de Beek, Fernandes; Sancho, Lingard, Ronaldo
October 30: Tottenham (a) – Premier League, kick-off 5.30pm, live on Sky Sports
November 2: Atalanta (a) – Champions League, kick-off 8pm
November 6: Man City (h) – Premier League, kick-off 12.30pm, live on Sky Sports
November 20: Watford (a) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
November 23: Villarreal (a) – Champions League, kick-off 5.45pm
November 28: Chelsea (a) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports
December 2: Arsenal (h) – Premier League, kick-off 8.15pm