Man Utd's lack of quality depth highlights urgency for January reinforcements

Juan Mata Manchester United 2019-20
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer called upon a number of fringe players against Wolves but his side lacked any cutting edge in the final third

Watching Manchester United's back-up forwards struggle to break down a far from full-strength Wolves side on Saturday evening, it was clear that there is an alarming lack of depth within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Gone are the days of Sir Alex Ferguson having such confidence in his squad that he would willingly leave key starters out of his team for some of the Red Devils' biggest fixtures, safe in the knowledge that his reserves would do just as good a job as those he regularly relied upon.

Instead, Solskjaer could only watch on as Juan Mata, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood toiled alongside Daniel James at Molineux, with Andreas Pereira and Nemanja Matic behind them failing to offer any kind of creativity as the third-round FA Cup tie ended in a forgettable goalless draw.

And while the result and performance will leave some United fans fearful of what is to come when Manchester City visit Old Trafford on Tuesday for the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final, in reality the bigger picture is far more concerning.

At 31, Mata's best days are behind him. While it was understandable that the former Chelsea playmaker was given the chance to extend his stay at the club over the summer as a swathe of attacking talent departed, it is clear now that both parties need to go their separate ways at the end of this season.

Chong, meanwhile, struggled on the right-hand side at Molineux, with his decision making regularly frustrating the travelling United support. It remains too early to write the 20-year-old Dutch wideman off completely, but it is concerning that he has yet to make a lasting impression in his first-team appearances to date.

Perhaps it could have been a game for Angel Gomes, who was regularly cited as the more exciting player when compared with Chong as they came through the academy ranks together, but uncertainty surrounding the 19-year-old's future as he runs his contract down means Solskjaer has been reluctant to further the development of a player who could join a rival in six months time.

Without him, Greenwood was left to chase down blind alleys while James looked like a player who has been worked too hard over the busy festive schedule. Marcus Rashford offered a spark of quality when summoned off the bench, but he too is in need of a rest, one that, given United's packed January schedule, will probably not be forthcoming.

Marcus Rashford Manchester United 2019-20

Solskjaer was, of course, hindered by the absence of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard through illness and Paul Pogba through injury, but even then there are issues that need to be resolved.

Martial has begun to come under criticism after an encouraging start to the season and it is starting to become clear that he perhaps does not possess the attributes required to play as an attacking focal point on a weekly basis.

Lingard, meanwhile, has become something of a punchline after going a full 12 months without either scoring or providing an assist in the Premier League. For a player who has emerged as Solskjaer's preferred No.10, that is a real issue.

Pogba, meanwhile, remains the one deep-lying midfielder who can relied upon to provide key passes from midfield and break down the kinds of defences that United have struggled against during their up-and-down campaign. But with the World Cup winner now set for surgery on the ankle injury that has limited him to just two appearances since September and Mino Raiola back making disparaging remarks about United to the media, the end does seem nigh for Pogba at United.

It says something for United's attack that even the absence of Scott McTominay - for all intents and purposes a defensive midfielder - was felt in the final third, with Matic unable to match the energy of a player eight years his junior.

Solskjaer's lack of options can be best summed up by his final substitution on Saturday seeing Diogo Dalot - a player who Jose Mourinho described as being "Manchester United's right-back for the next decade" - being thrown on as a right winger. Solskjaer has nowhere to turn. It is on Ed Woodward and the United hierarchy to act in January.

The club's primary No.9 options to provide competition for Martial have already gone elsewhere, with Mario Mandzukic moving to Qatar to join Al-Duhail while Erling Braut Haaland was persuaded to join Borussia Dortmund rather than make the leap to the Premier League from Red Bull Salzburg.

Wolves star Raul Jimenez has now emerged as a target, with preliminary talks regarding a potential transfer under way. Quite where United go if they cannot push that one through in the middle of the season is anyone's guess, though Rashford's improved output in front of goal and Greenwood gaining further experience may allow for them to wait until the summer.

Further back it seems as if Christian Eriksen is set for Inter, while prising James Maddison away from Leicester City is likely to prove difficult until the summer at the earliest, even if reports on Sunday claimed that Lingard was being offered as part of the deal to bring the ex-Norwich man to Old Trafford. Given the lack of creativity on show throughout the season in Pogba's absence, this is the area which should be focusing most of Woodward's thoughts.

Ed Woodward GFX

Against City, Rashford and Fred will certainly return, while Martial and Lingard too will likely come back into contention if they can prove their fitness. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka in to provide defensive stability in place of Ashley Young there will still be some diminished returns going forward, but at least the XI will bear more of a striking resemblance to that which provided the highlight of United's campaign to date as they ran out 2-1 winners at the Etihad Stadium in December.

Repeating the trick for Solskjaer across two legs may prove his most difficult task to date, particularly with Pep Guardiola unlikely to offer United's attackers quite the same space to move into this time around. Solskjaer has stuck steadfastly with his preferred system in recent months, and with limited options to change things in the final third, he has his hands tied somewhat even if there are wider issues with his coaching ability.

With an away game to follow in the second leg, Solskjaer could choose to keep things tight and minimise any potential damage in the first match. For that plan to succeed, though, it would need three unlikely events.

Solskjaer would need to reintroduce a defensive discipline that has rarely been seen since Mourinho’s second season, while also switching from his previously successful approach to try something different. Perhaps most importantly, he would require Manchester City’s attacking talent to misfire. 

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Otherwise, his option is to stick to the same plan as ever and hope that McTominay's absence is not felt as much as it seems likely to be.

Counter-attacking into space when it is regularly offered up is a sensible tactic and makes the most out of a team that is not short of pace. Guardiola is plainly no fool, however, and while the massed minds of the Premier League’s top sides have essentially been willing victims of United so far this term, surely City cannot ignore the obvious yet again.

As far as United are concerned, Woodward cannot let yet another manager go on with such an underwhelming collection of players.