Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is preparing for his first full season in charge of Manchester United, so what are the main challenges he faces?
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Galvanise dressing room
Manchester United’s summer has played out to a backdrop of uncertainty surrounding key players. Paul Pogba went public with his desire to leave the club in June, but a month on his future appears little closer to being sorted out. Solskjaer insists United will not be forced into selling him, but the speculation looks set to drag on.
There are question marks over David de Gea, too. United are eager to tie him to a new contract, with Sky Sports News reporting they are willing to make him the highest-paid goalkeeper in the world, but he is yet to commit his future to the club as he enters the final year of his current deal.
What exactly happens with Pogba and De Gea – not to mention Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez – may prove to be out of Solskjaer’s hands, but it’s down to him to manage how it impacts the dressing room. His challenge is to bring back the team spirit and camaraderie that underpinned United’s upturn in form in his first few months in charge.
It won’t be easy – especially with such strong personalities involved. Pogba, De Gea and Lukaku are all senior figures in the dressing room. If they go, there will be a major rebuilding job at hand. If they stay, Solskjaer must ensure they fall in line while also getting more out of them on the pitch.
Pogba’s inconsistency remains a big issue despite his inclusion in last year’s PFA Team of the Year, while De Gea’s drop in form last season was alarming. According to Opta, he made more errors leading to goals (five) than in the previous five Premier League seasons combined. Lukaku, meanwhile, was unable to hold down a starting spot.
Marcus Rashford has insisted the mood is positive ahead of the new campaign, saying the players are working harder than ever to “put things right”, but there is still work to be done to ensure there is no hangover from last season. By the time they kick off their campaign against Chelsea next month, Solskjaer must ensure his players are pulling in the same direction.
Nurture the youth
Solskjaer’s coaching career began in Manchester United’s academy so it is hardly surprising that he has placed youth at the heart of his approach. This summer, instead of signing established stars, the club have prioritised young, hungry British players, with Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka expected to be followed to Old Trafford by Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff.
The new arrivals are not the only youngsters in line to feature in the first team. Last season, Solskjaer integrated Mason Greenwood, James Garner, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. All four have travelled to Australia for their pre-season tour and so too has defender Axel Tuanzebe, who impressed on loan at Aston Villa last season.
The youth-first policy is an admirable one which tallies with the club’s traditions, but it will only work if United’s young stars are given the right coaching and guidance. Greenwood, Garner, Gomes and Chong are all promising, but they are a long way from being the finished product and the same is true of James and Wan-Bissaka.
It is one thing to throw young players into the team, but it is another to iron out their mistakes and equip them to handle the pressure. There is a fine line between opportunity and over-exposure. United’s young players will need experienced heads around them and they will need careful management, too.
Solskjaer’s background in youth coaching will help, of course, but when it comes to bringing young players through at senior level, his experience is limited. Can he show he is the right man to manage the transition? The success of this youthful United project is likely to depend on it.
Find defensive balance
On the pitch, the main area in need of attention is undoubtedly the defence. Manchester United conceded 54 goals in the Premier League last season – more than Crystal Palace and Newcastle, who finished 12th and 13th respectively.
The issues were apparent throughout the campaign but they were particularly problematic in the final two months, when United conceded 22 goals in 11 games in all competitions. They have not kept a clean sheet since their goalless draw with Liverpool at the end of February.
The signing of Wan-Bissaka is the first step to improving the situation. The 21-year-old was excellent defensively for Palace last season, making more tackles and interceptions than any other Premier League defender, but the central defence still requires surgery and Solskjaer also needs to coax more from Luke Shaw at left-back.
United are targeting Harry Maguire as the man to build around, but Leicester have already knocked back a £70m bid, while Manchester City are also said to be in the frame.
The 26-year-old would represent a significant upgrade on United’s current centre-back options, but the issues are down to structure as well as personnel. Last season, the defence simply didn’t receive enough cover from the midfield, with Nemanja Matic struggling in the holding role and Pogba seemingly reluctant to track back and do the dirty work.