Belfast Telegraph

United stars must prove worthy of the shirt, blasts angry Ole

 

Big battle: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has warned his United players that City will be aggressive at Old Trafford tonight
Big battle: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has warned his United players that City will be aggressive at Old Trafford tonight

By Miguel Delaney

It is not just Manchester United's results that have gone from extreme to extreme, but also the dressing room. The two, inevitably, are interlinked.

Just as one of the best winning runs in the club's history has given way to one of the worst ever losing streaks, a spirit of unity and positivity has given way to one of doubt, anxiety and general disgruntlement just as United prepare to entertain bitter rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford this evening.

If the story of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's stunning initial surge was the little things like getting the players to wear suits that added up to a whole lot, what is the story of this drastic downturn? It is about so much more than just making him the permanent boss.

The first and most crucial point is that the early form was just never going to last. It was simply too good to be true, and unsustainable. The signs were there in some of the wins, from Tottenham Hotspur to the more recent tipping point of the undeserved home victory over Watford.

But the wonder is what has happened to make it all so much worse.

It is by now a combination of factors, with the poorer mood from poorer results naturally compounding problems, but Solskjaer feels there are two fundamental reasons. He has realised a lot of the players aren't good enough, and a lot of their fitness levels aren't good enough.

The first-team staff now feel that the players weren't physically conditioned for the intense football that was so integral to the good form in his first few months, and that they are now paying the price. They just can't play the same football.

Some put that down to the pre-season under Jose Mourinho, but others are now wondering about the potential effects of what they describe as "a second pre-season" in Dubai a few weeks ago.

One source incredulously asked "what on earth were they doing?"

For Solskjaer's part, that is not exactly a widespread view around the team, but it has fed into growing doubts about a few elements of his management.

Some players did have doubts about his strengths when he first came in. While those doubts were naturally washed away in the freewheeling euphoria of the first three months they have come back with force. Some are now wondering about his tactical acumen, with one source describing it as "his biggest problem".

All of this of course must be put into the context that Solskjaer himself now has plenty of doubts over many of the players. It is understood that the last few weeks have seen a lot of them realise their futures are under question. Even a signing as recent and expensive as Romelu Lukaku could be facing the exit, with Solskjaer open to such a sale.

There is then the issue that the Spanish speaking players - a hugely influential dressing-room group comprised of Ander Herrera, Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia, David De Gea - are set to be broken up. This has naturally altered the chemistry of the squad.

A deeper issue - and fundamental challenge - is that the contracts of players United want to get rid of makes them very difficult to offload, while so many players they want to keep are looking elsewhere.

Paul Pogba is now said by some to be "very keen to leave" for Real Madrid, De Gea is not getting the wage he wants, while Marcus Rashford would naturally greatly consider any concrete offer from Barcelona. One team-mate has complained to friends about how Rashford is not quite the humble figure he used to be.

The bottom line with all of this is that it is no longer the singularly focused dressing room that Solskjaer had in the wake of the optimism generated by his initial appointment, with the situations of some naturally making them more prone to disgruntlement at certain decisions.

This is why some would make it known they are doubting his tactics, even if there is still a fair debate to be had there.

So, Solskjaer has a squad short of fitness, short of quality and short of confidence. This is partly why they are short of form, but the extent of the drop-off puts at least some of the blame at his feet.

There is a lot to sort out, and an awful lot to untangle.

As for tonight's derby clash, Solskjaer has warned his players to expect an aggressive City side to be "snapping at their heels" and fouling them.

The two sides will meet in a high-stakes clash with City locked in a tight Premier League title race with Liverpool and United scrapping to get into the top four.

City have previously been accused of 'tactical fouling' to prevent counter-attacks when they are pressing high up the pitch, and Solskjaer expects to see that tonight.

"We have got to be ready for the press and the quality they have got on the ball," he said.

"When we win it we have got to be ready for their aggression because they will snap at your ankles and heels and kick you.

"They will not allow us easy counter-attacking. There will be fouls, no doubt about it."

Solskjaer had questioned his players' attitudes immediately after Sunday's 4-0 defeat at Everton but adopted a more balanced tone yesterday.

"Now is not the time to be making wholesale changes in the squad," he said. "We've been doing great. Only City and Liverpool have taken more points than us in the last 18 games and that's a great effort by the boys.

"We were where we were when we came in and we've given it a real go. You see lots of the United standards and DNA in many of these players. But we will have to get some in and some will have to go out."

Given the problems exposed at Goodison Park, Solskjaer said there was no one he would rather be facing than City.

"It was the best game we could ask for now," he said.

"The players are hurting. We had a meeting and you can see all the players were really hurt by that performance and the City game is perfect. There is no hiding place on the pitch."

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