The remarkable impact Bruno Fernandes has had at Old Trafford offers an intriguing re-analysis of what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is building at Manchester United.
The tactical plan hasn’t changed at all. United are still pretty aimless, still lacking any semblance of detailed coaching or prepared attacking moves, but simply by adding creativity and intelligent movement to midfield Fernandes has triggered a dramatic upturn in the club’s performances, helping them to 11 points from five Premier League games.
The upshot is that perhaps the fine-tuning of team shape and creative structure – the like seen at Liverpool or Man City – isn’t as necessary as it first seemed.
The alarming scale of the financial disparity in the Premier League means a club of United’s stature could soon enter a phase of flat-track bullying, building a superstar first 11 that can easily beat the mid-table clubs on sheer quality without the need for a real tactical plan. The individualism of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid is a model United could follow.
As unlikely as it sounds, maybe Solskjaer’s uncanny ability to win the ‘Big Six’ head-to-heads – and his strong defensive organisation – means United will be title-challengers once they have a few more elite players in their ranks who can overcome the tactical void in the majority of their game.
And so what United need to look for this summer are true individualists; line-breaking attackers who can unlock a deep-lying opposition defence without managerial instruction, who can beat a man and create space on their own, and who can contribute with moments of magic that secure three points even without an obvious battle plan.
In other words: they should buy Jack Grealish.
At the risk of sounding glibly spiritual, the truly great players have an aura, particularly when watched in the flesh. It’s something about the effortless grace of their touches, the swagger of genius, the caressing of a football that makes them look taller, broader chested, than anyone else. The ball sounds different coming off their foot, a gentler noise, while passes are threaded at such implausible angles that flat-footed defenders make it look as though time has stood still.
These things often get lost in translation to the TV screen, their energy unable to survive the filter of the lens. They are signs of a generational talent. Awe is a common response, but not as much as laughter, so incredulous is their talent up close. In the Premier League, Gareth Bale had it. Eden Hazard had it, and Kevin de Bruyne too.
Grealish has it.
The Aston Villa captain is a remarkable footballer, excelling despite being burdened with carrying a relegation candidate on his shoulders, averaging more key passes per game (2.7) than any other player in the Premier League bar De Bruyne. He is the beating heart of the side, time and again running at defenders, dribbling past them, winning fouls, and creating chances.
Even with Fernandes in the team, what United most lack is a playmaker with guile to come inside off the flanks (where Solskjaer currently only has pure pace wingers) and slip through balls into the forwards. This is Grealish’s main specialty, and given United’s propensity to attack down the left he could carve teams open to feed Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford.
Grealish is more famous, of course, for the number of fouls he wins – 4.9 per match, 50% more than his closest rival in that regard, Wilfried Zaha. This tells us Villa’s number ten draws players towards him with his dribbling style, which at a club of United’s size means disrupting a defensive shell and creating room for others. It is a magnetism and directness that Solskjaer’s side sorely lack.
What’s more, there is every reason to expect Grealish will significantly improve at a bigger club. He seems to thrive under pressure, rising to the big occasion more than once, but more importantly coming on leaps and bounds over the course of the 2019/20 season so far. Every Villa fan anticipated he would comfortably make the step up from Championship to Premier League. Few expected him to get so much better.
Grealish has already matched his 2018/19 tally of 13 league goals and assists. Just imagine the figures he could reach with United’s willing runners, and surrounded by enough talent to make marking him less of a priority. As a Villa player, every opponent doubles up on him and he still dominates. That wouldn’t happen at Old Trafford.
Signing the 23-year-old would be a big step in taking United towards the top of the Premier League, assuming the Zidane-style Galactico model is pursued by Ed Woodward, but Solskjaer will need several more recruits alongside him.
A new striker - perhaps Timo Werner? - is needed to finish the half-chances that are currently wasted by Rashford and Martial; United’s xG this season has cost them seven Premier League points according to understat.com. Solskjaer could also do with an upgrade on the right flank, with Jadon Sancho an obvious choice to provide the elite-level individualism needed to paper over the absence of in-depth tactics.
Man Utd are not too many moves away from the title, as strange as that might sound given the club are 37 points behind Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side should drop off significantly next season while an ageing Man City may struggle to improve on their 2019/20 tally, putting the title back at about 90 points.
If United learn how to consistently beat the smaller teams they will approach that figure. What Fernandes has already done suggests adding a few superstars should do it. Grealish can play a big part in bridging the gap.
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