Solskjær cannot continue to survive on goodwill and fond memories | Jonathan Wilson

Not for the first time this season, Manchester United’s tactical shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed by Leicester

It was an afternoon to stir the soul, a thrilling game of three outstanding goals and a Leicester performance that suggested their injury problems may be behind them and their season may be about to begin.

Even in the context of recent successes, this was a game that will take an exalted place in the collective memory of the King Power. But beyond that excitement, this was another glum day for Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. How long can this drift be allowed to go on? How long can nostalgia insulate against the recognition of mediocrity? How long can the same problems be allowed to keep recurring?

When things are going badly for his side, Solskjær has a habit of gazing plaintively from the edge of his technical area, like a Viking elder wondering if the longship fleet will ever return from across the unknowable sea. His weary grey‑blue eyes perhaps see through the storm and the spray, to the deeper currents beneath, the remorseless beat of the waves against the shore as familiar problems erode his credibility yet further.

As Paul Pogba acknowledged, none of the issues that undermined them on Saturday have not been seen before; none of them look close to being solved.

The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, for all that he papers over cracks with his remarkable goalscoring ability and his appeal to memories of the club’s last golden age, has not helped. Rather he exists as a perpetual rebuke, a projection of the deeper mood of the club that must exist beneath the sentimental recollection of the player Solskjær used to be.

As the second half went on Ronaldo passed from irritation to disbelief to funk. At the final whistle he stood alone in the Leicester half – as he had for most of the game – staring furiously at the ground. He tore the tape from around his ring in obvious frustration, bumped fists with Kasper Schmeichel and then clapped the away fans with desultory politeness.

The midfield, as ever, was the major source of concern. This time there was no Fred, no Scott McTominay, just Nemanja Matic alongside Pogba, whose only real contribution beyond his damning post-match comments was a series of minor fouls for which he was eventually booked.

As each combination proves as ineffective as the last, how long, you wonder, before Solskjær turns to the 35-year-old Paul McShane, who anchored the midfield for the academy side in the Papa John’s at Sunderland last Tuesday?

A dejected Cristiano Ronaldo bumps fists with Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel at the end of the game
A dejected Cristiano Ronaldo bumps fists with Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel at the end of the game. Photograph: Graham Wilson/Action Plus/Shutterstock

But personnel is only part of the problem. There is no sense of organisation or coherence and that is as true of United in the attacking phase as the defensive. The only plan seems to be to wait for one of their many brilliant players to do something brilliant.

Mason Greenwood did just that to give them the lead, seizing on the half-yard of space allowed by Timothy Castagne to rattle a shot in off the post, and then Marcus Rashford did as well to level at 2-2, taking Victor Lindelöf’s long pass to finish emphatically. For the most part, though, United were outplayed in midfield, despite the absence of Wilfred Ndidi.

What is perhaps most worrying is that United have started conceding on the break and to dead balls, two red flags that something is wrong on the training ground. The goals for Caglar Soyuncu and Patson Daka were the third and fourth United have let in from set-plays this season and, frankly, there could have been more.

The scoreline would have been worse but for a couple of excellent saves from David de Gea, the sharpness of two of United’s forwards and the sense, particularly early on, that Leicester are a side lacking in confidence.

The darting runs of Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho down the outside of Harry Maguire and Lindelöf caused constant problems, while the deployment of James Maddison just behind them successfully targeted the area where United are weakest. The wing-backs, Castagne and Ricardo Pereira, enjoyed a remarkable amount of space, as well as effectively neutering Luke Shaw as an attacking force.

It was the first time Leicester had used a back three in the league this season so, being generous, United can perhaps be forgiven if they were taken aback. But at no point did they react. The tactical battle, once lost, remained lost.

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The 29-game unbeaten away run is over. United have dropped 10 points when champions generally cannot drop 20 in total and it is two wins in the past seven games in all competitions, both achieved with late goals (and in one case with an even later missed penalty by the opposition) after unconvincing displays.

Even those wins have somehow been squeezed into a narrative of Ollie-time, but nostalgia cannot save Solskjær for ever. At some point, defeats must overwhelm the goodwill and fond memories.


Jonathan Wilson at the King Power Stadium

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