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First team

Media view: Expert insight on United

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AFC Bournemouth AFC Bournemouth

AFC Bournemouth will be hoping to halt the Manchester United juggernaut when they meet their Premier League rivals at Old Trafford tomorrow (3pm kick-off).

The Red Devils are in fine form and have gone 15 games unbeaten in all competitions, including the FA Cup and Europa League.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team are currently fifth in the table, two points behind fourth-placed Chelsea as the race for Champions League qualification intensifies.

Appointed permanently in March 2019, Solskjær saw United win just three of their first 11 Premier League games this season, the indifferent start including a 1-0 defeat at Vitality Stadium at the start of November.

But since losing back-to-back games in the top flight against Liverpool and Burnley in January, they have hit a purple patch and were particularly ruthless during their 3-0 win at Brighton on Tuesday.

Ahead of the clash, afcb.co.uk caught up with Laurie Whitwell, who covers the fortunes of United for The Athletic.

afcb.co.uk: Briefly summarise United’s form since the season restarted?

LW: It has been pretty good. In hindsight, maybe they would have been disappointed not to have beaten Spurs, especially given the way they have looked since and the way the match went.

But, all in all, they will not be complaining. They have scored goals, they have put in promising performances and improvements have been made so they are looking good.

They were really impressive in their last game against Brighton on Tuesday. The way they went about it from the get-go which has been a criticism of them before, starting games too slowly.

The front five – Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – look a potent threat.

You saw some moves that looked like they had come straight from the training ground and the counter attack for the second goal was brilliant.

It was a sign they have players who are confident in their team-mates and with high technical ability. The speed of Martial and Rashford to get into the box, even though they didn’t play a part in it, was good to see from a United perspective.  

afcb.co.uk: If you had to pinpoint a weakness in United’s armoury, what would it be?

LW: It’s weird to say considering they have 11 clean sheets in their past 15 games but, possibly, they could add another central defender alongside Harry Maguire as the jury is still out a little on Victor Lindelof.

And possibly just the attacking strength in depth. They have Greenwood looking good for the spot on the right. Dan James has had a bit of a dip more recently and Odion Ighalo is the back-up striker.

I think that’s where they will look to strengthen and that’s why they are looking at Jadon Sancho and a striker to come in during the transfer window.

afcb.co.uk: How impressed have you been with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, considering he had a quite a tough start to his managerial tenure at the club?

LW: I’ve always really liked him. I can accept that people looked at his CV and thought ‘why on earth is he Manchester United manager?’

But I think that discounts that fact that he loved playing for the club, he knows Sir Alex Ferguson very well and he was reserve team manager.

He understands the club very well and what it should take to get them there. The question always was, does he have the courage, personality and ruthlessness to execute that?

We have seen this season that he has made bold decisions which have paid off and he has some nice tactical ideas when you look at the big games against Manchester City, Spurs, Chelsea and even Liverpool when they nearly became the first team to beat them.

I think he has a lot of strings to his bow. Perhaps the public statements he made earlier in the season portrayed a little bit of caution.

He didn’t quite compel to me that he was a Manchester United manager but, since lockdown, his statements have been much more confident and bullish.

He looks more comfortable in that situation so I’ve been really impressed he has taken decisions for the betterment of the club and not necessarily for the betterment of his own immediate success. He let go Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku and didn’t bring in a striker.

When you look at his work in the transfer market – Maguire, James, Fernandez, Ighalo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka – they have all done well and been hits.

Okay, they are still a long way behind Liverpool and Manchester City but, for a season of transition, I think it has been good.

afcb.co.uk: Who has been United’s standout performer since the restart?

LW: Bruno Fernandes.

The way he can score from distance and his whole demeanour as well. The way he encourages team-mates, he clearly has high standards and the way he led the press against Brighton, for example, he was dropping back into left-back when needed.

He seemed to be everywhere but then also had the quality to be decisive in the final third which is something United lacked earlier in the season. They didn’t have a player who could open up defences when Pogba was injured.

A head-nod also to Greenwood who has come back with an extra 3kg of muscle on his frame and is looking really sharp and a proper player.

afcb.co.uk: What was it like covering a game at an empty Old Trafford?

LW: Surreal. I walked out and was pretty impressed by the fan mosaic. They have gone further than most other clubs in putting the fan pictures and netting over the first and second tiers of the stand. It weirdly had quite an impressive feel when you walked out.

That being said, it’s such a curious atmosphere when it’s such a big stadium and you can hear players talking and shouting. That’s quite an interesting thing to listen to.

Maguire gave Luke Shaw a bit of a rollicking for being a bit slow to a pass which allowed Sheffield United to break during that game and you could hear everything.

It’s not something I would like to repeat on a regular basis but, for the novelty factor, it’s intriguing.

afcb.co.uk: Do United have any players either injured or suspended against the Cherries?

LW: Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are both injured so the centre-back situation is looking a little light but they still have Eric Bailly on the bench. That’s about the size of it.

afcb.co.uk: What’s your score prediction?

LW: I hate to say it given Bournemouth obviously need the points but I can’t really see anything other than a comfortable United win, just because of the way they have been playing recently.

They took Sheffield United and Brighton apart and I think it could be a similar scoreline. I’ll be bold and go for 4-0.

You can follow Laurie on Twitter – @lauriewhitwell

Match officials: Mike Dean (referee), Simon Bennett (assistant), Darren Cann (assistant), Anthony Taylor (fourth official), Lee Mason (VAR), Adrian Holmes (assistant VAR), Paul Hodskinson (replacement official).

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