Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address?

By Sports Desk July 24, 2021

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

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    Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United will propel Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side towards Champions League success, according to former Red Devil Louis Saha.

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    "I think so, yes, I think it [Ronaldo to United] is a game changer," Saha told Stats Perform when asked if United could win the Champions League.

    "I do think that the Champions League is the hardest competition. Yes, the Premier League is a marathon and you have five to six clubs who can actually win it.

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    "United has the balance that they didn't over the years to win the Champions League," he said. "We had maybe a less quality squad when we won the Champions League.

    "We have seen it with Chelsea, I don't think they had a great squad but it's about the team and about the team spirit and how you want to win it more than others.

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    Despite surrendering a one-goal lead against Young Boys on Tuesday, Ronaldo created another record with his opener – the longest gap between goals for the same club in the competition's history (12 years and 132 days).

    The Swiss side also became the 36th different club the forward has scored against as he extended his goal count to 135 goals in 177 games, 15 ahead of second-placed Lionel Messi in the all-time scoring list.

    With Ronaldo leading the line, Saha envisages continuous success for United for three reasons as they look to challenge domestically and in Europe.

    "The first one is because the guy is very obsessed in front of the goal," he said.

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  • Sancho's 2020-21 struggles suggest slow Man Utd start just part of the journey Sancho's 2020-21 struggles suggest slow Man Utd start just part of the journey

    Jadon Sancho's arrival at Manchester United was initially heralded as something of a game changer for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their right-wing problems set to be a thing of the past with the England international seemingly guaranteeing goals and creativity. 

    But, as it did with most other stories in football, Cristiano Ronaldo's signing took the spotlight away and it seems everyone has been focused on the Portugal talisman. 

    That might actually be a helpful thing for Sancho, given his start to life at United has been about as explosive as a candle. He is there, in the background, but unless you look at him it is very easy to forget his existence. 

    Sancho thus far appears to have largely escaped full-scale criticism, with Ronaldo's goalscoring return and then United's embarrassing loss to Young Boys somewhat eclipsing the winger's muted introduction. 

    That is not to say his ineffectiveness has gone unnoticed, certainly not by supporters. But should they be concerned even this early in his United career? 

    'Every player has slow periods'

    Digging into Sancho's form after just four Premier League appearances probably seems a little premature. Maybe it is, but his slow start is certainly a talking point from United's perspective. 

    There could be any number of reasons for Sancho taking a little longer to get up to speed than hoped, such as a shortened pre-season after Euro 2020, adapting to a new system and team-mates, or even a loss of confidence following his spot-kick woes in the European Championship final. 

    But it is worth pointing out Sancho had a similarly tricky start to 2020-21, something his Borussia Dortmund coach at the time partly put down to United's interest. 

    "Every player has slow periods. There was a lot of talk about Jadon during the summer – something like that can be a factor," Lucien Favre said in October last year. "No player is consistently in top form for an entire year, that's impossible. You have to accept that." 

    Sancho's patchy form continued all the way up to Germany's mid-season break – at that point, he had not scored in 11 Bundesliga games and only laid on three assists. It was a far cry from his breakout season the previous campaign when he netted 17 and set up another 16 – that was the standard he set. 

    Though that in itself should have been seen as unmatchable given how much he outperformed his expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA). In total, he was involved in 14.9 more goals than the average player would have ordinarily expected given the quality of the chances, which was the most across the top five European leagues (Ciro Immobile was second with 13.5). 

    It was surely unsustainable form and that was what his struggles in the first half of 2020-21 lent further credence to. But how does his form back then compare to his first steps in the Premier League? 

    Lacking cohesion in new surroundings

    It must be highlighted again that Sancho's first four Premier League matches represent a small sample size, so you obviously have to be a little cautious when it comes to drawing conclusions – after all, he could potentially score a hat-trick against West Ham and his record of three goals from five games would look pretty handy. 

    Nevertheless, Sancho's early-season numbers certainly reflect the idea he is not offering a great deal to United. In fact, in terms of productivity, he's significantly down even on that difficult first few months of 2020-21. 

    For starters, he has managed just two shots in 184 minutes on the pitch, which is obviously poor for someone brought in to be an attacking threat, particularly given he averaged 2.4 every 90 minutes pre-Christmas last season. Though there is a positive spin – some players may take hopeful snapshots in an attempt to dig themselves out of a rut, but Sancho at least is not panicking in that sense. 

    His stunted productivity does extend to creativity, however. Creating one chance from open play every 90 minutes, he's down on both the pre- (1.6) and post-Christmas (2.5) periods from 2020-21, and the combined quality of the openings he has crafted have not been especially threatening with an average xA of 0.11 per 90 minutes. 

    Even when deemed to be struggling last season, Sancho's xA value per key pass was almost three times as high (0.32). Of course, Sancho was in surroundings that were familiar to him and linking with players whose habits and characteristics he was more comfortable with, and there's a lot to be said for the value of cohesion, especially when things aren't going your way. 

    That is presumably something Sancho will have to work on even harder at United, given he has limited experience of playing with his new team-mates. 

    Lacking confidence, playing it safe

    Building a natural familiarity can only be even more of a challenge when you appear devoid of confidence. We can only speculate as to why that may be the case, but it is a reasonable assumption to make that he is lacking in self-belief. 

    His ordeal at Euro 2020 – when he played just 96 minutes before being specifically sent on in the last seconds of extra time in the final and missed his spot-kick – and the subsequent racist abuse he suffered on social media must have had an impact on his mental state. It would be shocking if it had not, though who is to say if that is the sole cause? 

    What we can say is that Sancho's apparent dip in confidence seems to have manifested in a greater reluctance to take players on. He almost looks sheepish when faced up by defenders – it should be the other way round – and as such he is attempting significantly fewer dribbles. 

    He tried to beat his man 5.7 times per 90 minutes in the first part of 2020-21, and that rose to 6.9 after the mid-season break – he is attempting 3.9 dribbles and completing 1.5 each game in the Premier League for United. 

    He is touching the ball far less often (64.1 touches per 90 minutes compared to 84.8 in the first half of last season), though 64 touches hardly suggests he is being ignored by team-mates. 

    But there is always a chance that United players may end up looking to others if Sancho is not deemed enough of a threat – after all, his average of 4.9 shot-ending sequence involvements per game is 1.6 fewer than he managed across all of last season. 

    This in itself is interesting because it suggests that, although Sancho was not as much of a creator or finisher in the first part of 2020-21, his influence in the build-up remained constant over the two periods of the campaign. 

    Linked to that is the frequency with which he played passes (including crosses) into the box, averaging 9.4 each game pre-Christmas and 9.5 after the mid-season break. But during these early weeks with United, he is producing just 3.4 such passes every 90 minutes. 

    Obviously, Sancho's reasoning for this could quite possibly be that he has not seen team-mates in enough space, given most teams United face will have fairly packed defences. But fans would argue he is the sort of player who should be unlocking deep backlines either through his creativity or ability on the ball, and so far he has largely been unable to. 

    Nevertheless, it is still far too early for anyone to start suggesting Sancho is enduring something of a crisis. He should be afforded patience and time to build meaningful on-pitch relationships with others in the United squad. 

    But when it comes to attaining some confidence, Sancho might just need to take the odd leap of faith – he is playing it safe and that is not what United bought him for. 

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