Manchester United have three new attackers in their team
Daniel James was not the first substitution Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had in mind on Sunday. Solskjaer was frantically stood in the technical area, making the rolling gesture at his bench. When Ashley Young did walk down the dugout steps he reached for a bib, only to be told to skip that and get ready to go on straightaway.
It feels like a trick of the mind Manchester United were 3-0 up at the time. Young was doubtless being prepared to replace Luke Shaw, targeted repeatedly by Chelsea and scolded by Jose Mourinho for his positional indiscipline. In the first-half, Solskjaer beckoned Victor Lindelof over to pass on instructions to Shaw, not within earshot as United attacked the Scoreboard End, but the message had not got through.
Ultimately, Solskjaer settled for attacking changes as United threatened to end that near eight-year hoodoo without scoring five in a home Premier League fixture. For the first time in 16 games – since the drab draw with Liverpool on February 24 – United recorded a clean sheet.
It cannot have been a coincidence they did so with a modern full-back and an established centre-back. In a game where United scored as many as they did in the last seven games of last term, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire were the standout performers.
“They slotted in really well,” Solskjaer said of the £125million duo. “Harry’s had three or four sessions with the team but he’s such an experienced pro that wants to learn. We’ve had a couple of talks with him about how we want to play, how he normally defends, how he normally plays, so that’ll only improve.
“And Aaron is so aggressive, doesn’t wanna get beat by tackles, so he’s a proper Man United defender.”
Most of the elite defenders are judged on attacking rather than defending and Maguire was initially restricted by Chelsea. As Solskjaer put it, Chelsea ‘pinned back’ United in the first-half and it was not until Maguire outmuscled Tammy Abraham in the 65th minute he displayed his passing prowess. Sixteen seconds later, Anthony Martial was bundling the ball into the net and the momentum had switched irreversibly.
Defending was still Maguire’s forte: he recorded the most clearances (seven) and interceptions (four) and none of the Chelsea players got past him. His snap chat with Scott McTominay at full-time underlined the importance of Maguire’s leadership credentials and his presence has patently had a positive effect on David de Gea.
An amateur psychologist might have deduced De Gea’s spring slump was partially down to the trauma of playing behind the same centre-backs for eight years. De Gea has Maguire in front of him and is not as distracted, having verbally agreed a six-year contract and received the captaincy on a near-permanent basis. He was grateful for the support he received from Solskjaer and the coaching staff during what sources close to De Gea described as his ‘lowest ebb’.
Maguire is now the lead vocalist of the United defence and De Gea could be the conductor. If his own leadership style amounts to decisive saves and deft distribution then the traditionalists are unlikely to grumble about the armband being attached to a goalkeeper’s bicep.
United have been tasked with playing out from the back and the best goalkeeper for most of the last five years is having to adapt. De Gea is not synonymous with sparking attacks, though it is easily forgotten Sir Alex Ferguson and his final goalkeeping coach Eric Steele settled on De Gea to replace Edwin van der Sar partially because of precise kicking was reminiscent of the Dutchman’s.
Having De Gea, Maguire and Victor Lindelof available to spray passes from the United third gives Wan-Bissaka license to stay get into the opponent’s third and double as a winger. Wan-Bissaka spent seven years of his Crystal Palace career in front of the full-back and that education maybe gives him an advantage over Shaw, yet to fully master the balance between defence and attack.
Wan-Bissaka could either show up Shaw or get him up to speed. Shaw slightly bristled at the suggestion a whippersnapper could coax more adventurousness of him. “The manager knows what I’m capable of and he’s always been with me since he’s come in,” he said in Singapore last month. “A little mention to Aaron, he’s been amazing… he’s in my position, he’s been unbelievable. He already looks like he’s been here for a while.”
Irrespective of whether Young has started his ninth and final United season, they will require a left-back to compete with Shaw next year, a la Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker on Manchester City’s right.
Shaw looked sheepish as he collected the Sir Matt Busby statue at Old Trafford in May but had still performed to a level where even Mourinho stressed he had been ‘playing so well’ after he gifted City their opener in the November derby. Shaw’s ceiling is still high.
It is incorrectly attributed to Sir Alex Ferguson and that Michael Jordan quote about ‘defence wins championships’ is unlikely to apply to United this year. But they might have the foundations to do it next year.