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Manchester United: 5 issues Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to solve to save his job

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
(Image credit: PA)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United ended last season without a trophy. Never mind: there were positives to build on. But failure to pick one up this season will not be viewed with the same ambivalence. 

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford underlines an expectation for trophies, now. Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho have joined too, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani are perhaps unexpectedly back in the fold, and Ole's squad is now packed with talent. There are no excuses. 

RICH JOLLY Could Champions League failure spell the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's time in charge of Manchester United?

Even two or three poor performances in a row spell a crisis at Old Trafford. United can't afford too many more slip-ups in their quest for silverware - and Ole might not be given many more off-days by the United hierarchy before attention turns to another manager...

1. Keep Ronaldo happy

Cristiano Ronaldo

(Image credit: PA)

"He walks off the pitch, muttering to himself, which throws questions up in the air," Gary Neville said of Cristiano Ronaldo being rested against Everton. "What is he saying? Who is he annoyed with? It can only come back to the manager."

Cristiano Ronaldo is another level to Donny van de Beek. While some players in the squad might be happy to be rotated, Ronaldo is going to want to play every game - and given his influence, Solskjaer needs to get him completely on board. If Ronaldo isn't happy, United's fans, directors and owners are likely to see the manager as far more expendable than their no.7.

NEWS Gary Neville suggests Cristiano Ronaldo is 'annoyed' with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Zinedine Zidane, for example, is out of work and knows how to manage CR7. If Ronaldo backs Ole, however, it becomes very difficult for the manager's position to come under fire.  

2. Fix the midfield

United have a problem in midfield. There's no natural single-pivot midfielder; Nemanja Matic is past his best, Pogba isn't diligent enough in a midfield pairing and both Bruno Fernandes and van de Beek are better further forward. This makes Fred and Scott McTominay the best all-round option in a 4-2-3-1.

The Fred/McTominay axis is imperative in big games but the pair can't be expected to play every game this season. United need other options and if a 4-3-3 isn't working, perhaps creative solutions are needed. A Southgate-style 3-4-3 - with Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the Walker role and Diogo Dalot at wing-back - might accomodate Pogba as a double-pivot midfielder, for example, though it could compromise attacking thrust.

Check out the Manchester United 2021/22 range here

And then there's the diamond formation which has worked for Solskjaer in the past at United: it could be a way to pack the midfield, get Mason Greenwood and Ronaldo in the same team and get either Pogba or van de Beek alongside Bruno. 

While Bruno's impact on United can't be understated, Greenwood has been excellent since bursting through and Harry Maguire transformed the defence, really, United have looked like potential title challengers when Solskjaer has managed to get McTominay and Fred to dominate in big games. The midfield could hold the key going forward. 

3. Maximise Jadon Sancho

Manchester United

(Image credit: Getty)

Jadon Sancho has had a slow start to life back in Manchester. He's still adapting to the Premier League but his manager needs to prove that he's still capable of doing what he was so good at doing in the first place: developing young, exciting talent into world beaters. 

Sancho has been used on the left with mixed results but given how little creativity United have on the right when they play Wan-Bissaka and Greenwood there, Sancho maybe suits the team better on the right. His game can be simplified, he can interlink with Bruno if he drifts out to that position and against deep blocks, he can be a skeleton key for the side.

Of course, Ole won't be judged by what he does with Sancho alone - but manage him well and a lot of other building blocks should fall into place.

It shouldn't be too hard judging by the 21-year-old's talent, either. He has every trait you'd want in a wide man. This year might well be his transition year - but there's certainly scope for a player of his ability to stake a claim as the first-choice right-winger in this system. 

4. Decide who's filling the left-wing position

Paul Pogba

(Image credit: PA)

...and once the right-wing is decided, the left-wing needs attention. Pogba's blistering  start to the campaign on that side has only created a selection headache: Ronaldo, Sancho, Martial, Lingard, Amad Diallo and the returning Marcus Rashford can all play on that side. So who gets the nod most often?

While Pogba is creatively supreme, a front four that features both him and Ronaldo is weaker in the press. It's perhaps no surprise that United have struggled with Pogba on the left and Ronaldo up front: the Newcastle thrashing came with Pogba deeper in midfield, for example. 

Rashford was a guaranteed starter on the left before Pogba and could swap wings with Sancho perhaps even in-game; Lingard is a bundle of energy who could be of use there, too. And naturally, If Ronaldo favours the left flank to a striker role, that throws another spanner in the works...

But Solskjaer needs to be ruthless, here. A big star is going to have to put up with a sidekick role in this side - and it shouldn't just be the player who makes the least fuss over an absence. The attack is a delicate machine and one of the manager's biggest successes has been in getting each individual cog to flourish: now he's got to do that all over again. 

5. Rotate wisely

Sir Alex Ferguson stepped into the debate over Manchester United's line-up selection against Everton. That's not a good sign - and Ole might think twice before resting players for a league game again. 

But once he's settled on a line-up that works, it might be worth sticking with that XI consistently, bringing in the other superstars off the bench. Given that there are five substitutions permitted in the Champions League, there's plenty of opportunity to give stars a breather, too. 

United have gone from their defined line-up of last season to one very much in flux this time around, with the versatility of some of their players a curse as much as a blessing. But you do get the feeling that no one has to fight to earn a start, just yet: they'll all get a chance sooner or later. 

Fergie himself was the master of knowing when and where to bring his squad fodder in from the cold and his super sub supreme will know that better than anyone. Perhaps this is the moment for Ole to hone those skills himself... 

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