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The Evolution of the Manchester United defence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

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Sir Alex Ferguson once said; “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Especially under Ferguson, United were always defined by a solid centre half partnership that became United’s rock for years. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come in, he’s struggled to find the perfect partnership at the back, but with the improvement of Harry Maguire and the signing of Raphael Varane, can this be the pairing to restore this rock and potentially bring the titles back to Old Trafford?

In Solskjaer’s first season at the club he mainly used Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling and occasionally Eric Bailly. He started off using Jones and Lindelof but switched to Smalling at times. He clearly didn’t have a preferred pairing but he was consistent in his use of Lindelof; Lindelof became a key member of Solskjaer’s team as until the signing of Raphael Varane, Lindelof was always first choice in the defence.

To resolve this issue, Solskjaer looked to bring in a dominant and controlling centre half in the summer. This was secured through the world record fee for a defender of £80 million for Harry Maguire. To this day, Maguire is overlooked due to his price tag, but recent performances have boosted his reputation. Maguire and Lindelof became Solskjaer’s trusted pairing and played together for around two years. In these two years, United have become far better defensively.

As of the 7 March, Maguire had kept 24 clean sheets since the start of the previous season which was the highest out of any outfield player. Therefore, this shows with Maguire in the team United are greatly improved as his key characteristics like heading, positioning and leadership assure the players around him and keep the defence stable. However, despite these clean sheets, issues remained and United were making mistakes defensively.

To combat this, Solskjaer has seen Lindelof as the weak link and in recent days pushed for the purchase of Raphael Varane, four-time Champions League winner and one time World Cup winner with France. Solskjaer will hope this is the final player needed in a heavily invested defence and will look to create a partnership for years to come with Maguire and Varane as the duo.

The Partnerships:

Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones

Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire

Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane

Firstly, the partnership of Lindelof and Jones. Lindelof and Jones was a pairing that both understood the game well and could hold their own but under consistent pressure would fold. The major issue was height, it lacked ariel dominance especially in such a physical league as the Premier League.

Therefore, rough teams like Burnley might look to take advantage of their weak ariel ability, which has continued through to the Maguire and Lindelof partnership as Lindelof still gets bullied in the air seen, in particular, against West Bromwich Albion when Mbaye Diagne manhandled Lindelöf to score in the second minute of the game.

As a pairing it wasn’t of the United level especially with the duo’s that had come by in the past like Steve Bruce x Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam x Ronny Johnsen and Rio Ferdinand x Nemanja Vidic. Maguire’s signing the summer after illustrates the issues with the Jones and Lindelöf partnership as he is a known tall, strong, and aerially brilliant defender purchased to give United more height.

Lindelof and Maguire as a partnership were more successful. They created a solid connection, enabling them to be Solskjaer’s trusted pairing for just under two years and win many big games together. The lack of height in the previous duo was mostly rectified, as Maguire brought this, but Lindelof was still a liability in this air, but it wasn’t as obvious as Maguire could cover for him.

However, the main weakness with this duo was pace. Both Lindelof and Maguire lacked pace and thus were susceptible to being done by quick agile players or balls in behind. This lack of pace also prohibited the United backline from pushing higher up the pitch in fear of faster forwards exploiting the slower defenders and running the channels.

This ultimately has had a detrimental effect on United’s style of play as due to the weakness of this partnership, Solskjaer has looked to use Scott McTominay and Fred to cover them which slows down United’s ball progression and transition and limits their attacking force. Overall, it’s been a decent partnership but one that always had blatant issues and subsequently Solskjaer looked to sign Varane to solve this.

In recent days, United have managed to agree a deal with Real Madrid for Raphael Varane subject to a medical. Solskjaer will be hoping his signing solves the issues of previous seasons like pace and height. Varane is a quick centre half who is 6 foot 3 inches tall and quite good in the air. Therefore, next to Maguire he should provide that necessary recovery pace needed to play next to him.

Furthermore, unlike Lindelof, Varane is good in the air which means that he should adapt to the physicality and demand of the Premier League and may be able to deal with the tricky strikers like Chris Wood, Michail Antonio and Ashley Barnes better than Lindelof. In addition, due to Varane’s pace it will enable United to play a higher line as he has the recovery speed if a ball is played in behind. Therefore, this means United can push higher up the pitch, pressing more and also being less likely to be forced back into their own half.

Then finally, with Varane’s qualities, he will reassure Solskjaer which will enable him to play with a lone defensive midfielder rather than two defensive midfielders in a pivot as seen with McTominay and Fred. Thus helping United play, a more attacking style of football which will please the players and most importantly the fans as it fulfils the DNA of Manchester United football club.

Overall, I feel Solskjaer has gradually done well adapting and changing his defence in his United tenure, and with a back four of Luke Shaw, Maguire, Varane and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, I feel United could be far more secure and balanced defensively which will strengthen the team as a whole and may lead them on to have a successful season and potentially win silverware.

Written by Ethan Bents

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