Paul Merson believes the time has come for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to make a big decision on David de Gea as his No 1 goalkeeper at Manchester United following his latest spate of errors.
Solskjaer defended the Spaniard in public towards the end of last season, stating he has the strength of character to rebound from a slew of mistakes that included costly blunders in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea.
His role in two of Everton’s goals during the 3-3 draw at Old Trafford on Saturday not only dealt his side a body blow in their quest to catch leaders Manchester City in the title race, but it also cast the spotlight on whether Dean Henderson should now be given a run in the team.
In his latest Sky Sports column, the Magic Man reflects on Solskjaer’s claim his side are “not title-chasers” and the decision that needs to be made over his first-choice stopper…
‘United defensively aren’t good enough’
If I’m Manchester United manager, I would be saying we’re in the title race. When you start saying that you’re not, it gives players an excuse, and a licence. Going forward, they’re doing nothing wrong. They scored three goals, and if you’re scoring three goals at home you have to be winning.
It was bad goalkeeping for Calvert-Lewin’s goal. I thought it was just as bad as Everton’s first, in fact I thought it was worse. You’ve got to come out and you’ve got to be brave and take a kick for the team. That’s what wins Premier League titles. You’ve got to put your body on the line.
It’s not the first time. He did it as well against RB Leipzig. He could’ve come out, smothered it and taken a hit. If you’re going to win league titles, you have to make sacrifices. A decision has to be made sooner or later.
You could try to get Dean Henderson into the team while there’s no crowds. That could get him a bit of confidence because you don’t want to put him in maybe next season when all of a sudden there’s 75,000 people there. He’d be under severe pressure straightaway. If you put Henderson in the team, are you going to allow him to make four mistakes?
De Gea has been great and at one stage he was the best goalie in the world. He’s not anymore. Jesse Lingard was one of the first names on the England teamsheet three years ago, now he’s going on loan to West Ham. Time moves on. When you’re manager of Manchester United, you have to make big decisions. If you don’t make them, and they keep coming back to haunt you then something’s wrong.
If you’d have told Ole his team were going to score three goals against Everton, you’d expect three points. It’s as simple as that. Going forward, they were good, but it’s the same issues. It’s the same Achilles heel where defensively they’re not good enough.
Have Liverpool been bad champions?
It wasn’t the Liverpool we’re used to watching. They sat back and Man City just went up a couple of gears. Liverpool shot themselves in the foot a couple of times but City just look a better team. Alisson is the best goalkeeper in the world and he makes two mistakes. You can count the number of mistakes he has made on one hand since he’s been here.
They’re out of the title race, let’s be honest. They’re 10 points behind and City have a game in hand. Even if they lost that game in hand, which would be a shock, they’ve still got to lose at least three more matches between now and the end of the season without Liverpool losing another game.
With their full team out, you can see Liverpool knocking off 10 wins on the trot. They’ve been on runs before but without Virgil van Dijk, for all the superstars they’ve got, it’s weird how one player can completely change a team.
They’ve got top players who are as good as anybody on their day; they’ve got two full-backs who’d virtually get into any other team and the best goalkeeper in the world. They’ve got Thiago, who’s won something every time he’s put a pair of boots on. He’s a winner, and yet when they lose one player, they’re a completely different team.
In fairness, they’ve had injuries so I don’t think we can say they’ve been that bad as champions. They’ve had big injuries. I know Sergio Aguero has been out and Kevin De Bruyne has been out, but De Bruyne hasn’t really been out for long. The team is still flying as someone has stepped in. Everyone at City is full of confidence.
My take on it would be that up until yesterday given the circumstances, to be still just about in the title race, I don’t think Liverpool have been that bad as champions. They’ve had three bad results, when before that they were top of the league. They were still favourites to win the title four or five weeks ago.
They’ve taken it this far and have had a lot of injuries. In the games they’ve lost, they’ve been so disappointing. Every game they’ve lost bar the City one has been so winnable.
Against Newcastle, West Brom, Brighton, Burnley – last season, they were near on gimmes. The West Brom game was one of the most one-sided matches I’ve seen all season, and they took the foot off the pedal, got lackadaisical and it ended up 1-1.
Against Newcastle, Salah missed a sitter and the goalie had the game of his life. Salah also missed a chance to go 1-0 up against Brighton and then that’s a different game. I can’t say they’ve been bad champions.
What has been behind the team’s struggles?
Last season, the team picked itself. It virtually played every week and everybody was singing off the same hymn sheet. They were the best team in the world. They were suffocating teams and they used to win the ball so high up. Van Dijk and Gomez would stand on the halfway line playing two-v-two… no one does that. With those two not playing, now they have to drop off, the front three aren’t winning the ball so high up.
Before, they’d win the ball 30 yards out from goal. It would only need one pass, virtually. Now, they’re winning the ball and starting attacks from 70 yards out. It needs at least four or five chances, and all of a sudden they’re a bit petrified of pushing forward as they’ve not got Van Dijk at the back and they’re very cautious when going forward.
They’re not going with that blood and thunder, power, pace and skill that they had. They were like the red arrows, with people left, right and centre. Now, all of a sudden, that’s not happening as they’re breaking cautiously. Van Dijk not being there is a massive knock-on effect throughout the whole team.
At the moment, the target has to be the top four. Next week they’re at Leicester and if they lose that then they’ll be out the top four. I personally think they will get into the top four. If they win their next six games, you can assess it again but right now, Klopp’s right with what he’s said – the target is finishing in the top four, 100 per cent.
‘Arteta has to plan for next season’
I don’t like the word but Arsenal are in transition. I don’t like it because if it doesn’t go well, then what? I thought when Mikel Arteta first came in, he did well to get the people he didn’t want out of the club. People who were on big wages and who weren’t playing, but now he has got to be planning for next season.
He shouldn’t be worrying if Arsenal finish 14th. He should be looking to get as many games out of Emile Smith Rowe to decide if he’s going to be playing next season.
Nicolas Pepe is right to be getting the games now as he looks a better player than when he arrived. It’s about seeing who’s going to be right for next season.
Arsenal don’t need another season like this. He needs to know who’s going to be there and what his team is. Now it’s about experimenting. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, I feel him coming out of the team has been just a case of after some results going well, Arteta has thought he can leave out his main man. He needs to see the other players.
They can’t rely on Aubameyang every week. It’s massive three months for Arteta to see who’s going to be there for him and who’s not. He’s allowed a couple of players to go out on loan and I personally think in doing that, he doesn’t see them at Arsenal next season.
Arsenal don’t need to be finishing in the top seven. They don’t need to be playing Thursday night football next season. They need to have a plan for next season, and the plan has to be that the players who aren’t there now can’t be part of those plans. They’d be playing now.
‘Sam hasn’t had the tools at West Brom’
Sam Allardyce has got an unbelievable record keeping teams up but just have a look at the players he has had in those teams.
At Sunderland, he had Jermain Defoe, one of the best centre forwards England have had. At Everton, he had Wayne Rooney. At Crystal Palace, he had Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha. At West Brom, he has got no players.
I watch West Brom, and I can’t believe how bad they are.
Slaven Bilic should be knighted for keeping them in games, not sacked. He got the sack! I watch them now, and I’m thinking ‘wow, they’re 100 per cent not good enough’. However good Sam’s record is, it doesn’t matter.
You’re only as good as the players you’ve got. You can only take the players so far, but they’re not good enough. It’s why I feel Sheffield United have to play Billy Sharp. They don’t create many chances, but if they get one, he has got a chance of scoring.
You’ve just got to have the players and not one of those players at West Brom ticks the boxes as being part of the Sam Allardyce way. He didn’t have anything to work off, none of them tick those boxes. He hasn’t got much to work with and however much he tries, they’re just not good enough. Bilic kept them in a lot of games, but we’re now seeing just how hard it was.
He knew what he was working with. He knew when he was replacing Bilic he was taking on a team that wasn’t doing well. You’re not coming into an unbelievable football team when some gets the sack.
Thomas Tuchel is fortunate, and you rarely get a job where you’re coming into a team that’s good anyway. Chelsea weren’t that low on confidence. They’ve won a few games and they’re now one point behind Liverpool. Next weekend, they should be above them given the fixtures.
Sam just hasn’t had the tools to work with.
‘Werner must stay patient… goals will come’
I’ve said all along with Chelsea that I’ve felt it’s a three-at-the-back job. When you compare how Sam at West Brom hasn’t had the personnel to play he wants to play to get out of trouble, Tuchel has completely had the players to play they way he has wanted them to.
He has got those who are used to playing three at the back, he’s got the wing-backs in Reece James, Ben Chilwell, Marcos Alonso and Callum Hudson-Odoi. He has got players who can 100 per cent play in those positions, so it’s perfect.
Timo Werner needs one to go in off his backside and if one does, I really believe he’ll go on a run of nine in nine. He just needs one to go in and then the goals will start to fly in.
Watching Chelsea at the weekend, he was making some unbelievable runs but the way they’re set up to play at the moment, they’re not looking for him. They’re not looking for those runs. They’re playing short passes to get Mason Mount in the hole and I feel that’s the problem. What they’ve got to work on next is getting Werner the ball as he was making some great runs.
They were playing the safe ball too many times, but as long as he’s not getting frustrated and keeps on doing it, in times it’ll work. At the moment, Tuchel is just trying to do things one step at a time. He’s getting the back three sorted to stop letting in goals.
He has got them tight at the back and is steadily going about his job. I still think Chelsea will finish in the top four, and so long as Werner doesn’t get frustrated he will in time hit it off. At the moment, they’re playing safe football.