For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it has been a very long international break. After watching his Manchester United side fall to a woeful 6-1 defeat to a rampant Tottenham side, he then watched on as a large majority of the squad departed for international duty.
Oh, and to make matters worse, his captain and leading figure in the dressing room (Harry Maguire) saw red while away with England and left the pitch visibly distraught. As if that wasn’t enough, reports also emerged of a row between Bruno Fernandes and Solskjaer during the defeat to Spurs, forcing the Portuguese to come out and deny these reports.
It’s a plus that what was said is seemingly untrue, but considering the fact that Solskjaer’s men have dominated the headlines in the early parts of the campaign due to their extremely slow start, the need to even discuss such a topic will have only added to the manager’s frustration.
With the squad now back together again, they have their first opportunity to begin to repair the damage when they travel to take on Newcastle on Saturday. Sure, there is a great need for the Red Devils to bounce back and pick up the three points, but the reality is that there is added importance on the team to deliver on Saturday considering their upcoming run of fixtures.
The game against Newcastle is the perfect opportunity to not only pick up the three points, but to also a chance to rediscover something close to their best form and build some much-needed confidence ahead of what can only be described as a brutal run of fixtures.
The ultimate fact is that when a team have conceded 11 goals in just three Premier League games, lost two of their first three games of the season and the captain is simply stuck in a lose/lose situation at the moment, the last thing they need is to be facing off against Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in a matter of days.
Yet, this is exactly what lies ahead. Oh, and Neymar also sat out PSG’s last game just to make sure he is well rested for the Champions League game on Tuesday. After this, United host Chelsea, RB Leipzig and Arsenal before then travelling to face İstanbul Başakşehir…and current league leaders Everton just for good measure. These games all come within the space of 21 days.
As a result, United must use the game against Newcastle as a platform builder for these matches. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t long ago when the Red Devils went 19 games unbeaten under Solskjaer, looking solid at the back and scoring goals aplenty.
This Magpies team are there for the taking and United have all the tools to produce a convincing display at St James’ Park. Sure, Steve Bruce’s men have won two of their first four league games and have only conceded five goals, but they have only managed eight shots on target so far – with six of them finding the back of the net.
On the one hand, we could see this as remarkably efficient, but in reality, it’s slightly concerning from a Magpies perspective. This is a team that are struggling to find the back of the net and have looked towards Allan Saint-Maximin to create moments of magic for his side so far in 2020/21. Meanwhile, in defence, Brighton brutally exposed the backline in their 3-0 win in October.
The Newcastle backline simply couldn’t deal with the movement and pace of Neal Maupay and Aaron Connolly, while the Seagulls were also dangerous down both sides.
Solskjaer and his staff will know how Newcastle will set out on Saturday, it’ll be up to them to break them down. In the early stages of the campaign so far, a lot has – rightly – been made of the Red Devils’ shocking defensive displays, but on the ball, they have also been wasteful and unimaginative.
The tempo of the passing has been slow, while the wide players (Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood) have been unable to get involved in games. A number of changes are expected, while Solskjaer would also benefit from changing to a 4-3-3 formation in order to provide greater stability in midfield.
But whatever team the boss selects and formation he deploys, United must step up the intensity and play with the freedom and confidence that saw them sweep teams aside during their unbeaten run. Sure, Ole has alluded to their lack of pre-season – which is true – but they are paying the price not only for their lack of organisation when out of possession, but also their lack of confidence when on the ball.
United have more than enough quality to expose Newcastle’s defensive frailties and they can do so by playing positively and looking to take control early on. A win will be the number one priority, but United must use the game as a chance to finally put a stop to their woeful run of form and put in a performance that silences a number of critics.
The need for a win and a solid display is about so much more than just getting back to winning ways. Solskjaer’s squad have the added pressure of needing to rediscover their form ahead of a potentially season-defining run of fixtures.
Sure, the Newcastle game is arguably the ‘smallest’ of United’s next seven games – but it’s undoubtedly one of the most important. It provides the Red Devils with the perfect chance to lay the foundations and rediscover their mental strength to get their season back on track. If they fail to deliver on Saturday, United fans will be fearing the worst for the PSG match – y’know, more than they already are.
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