Given the form of his attackers, should the Red Devils boss stick to what’s worked since the restart or trust in the so-far dependable Nigerian?
In fairness, Monday night didn’t only feel odd for Manchester United, it also allowed fans of the club to put their recent run of wins in perspective.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side surrendered a 2-1 lead to draw 2-2 at Old Trafford against a Southampton side that never stopped plugging away for the entire 90 minutes. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s charges levelled with virtually the final kick of the game through Michael Obafemi in the 96th minute.
Frankly, on the balance of play, it was no less than the Saints deserved after a good showing at the Theatre of Dreams. They offered something different from what United’s previous opponents have since the restart; pressing, hassling and not rolling over despite falling behind after initially going ahead in the first-half.
The upshot of that stalemate was the fifth-placed side failing to take advantage of a huge opportunity that presented itself before the start of the encounter. Having seen Chelsea and Leicester City lose at the weekend, the Red Devils could have moved into third with a win on Monday night.
However, Southampton edged possession (53-47 percent), shots (9-7) and even had Expected Goals of 1.81, superior to United’s 1.50. It was the first time since the restart that the 13-time Premier League champions have been second-best in any of the aforementioned metrics but was it foreseen or just a one-off?
Indeed, since their 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on June 19, Solskjaer has started the same XI in Premier League games, failing to turn to the likes of Odion Ighalo from the off in over a month.
The Nigerian did start, and scored, in the club’s FA Cup quarter-final success over Championship bound Norwich City in late June but the Norwegian boss has yet to grant the Shanghai Shenhua loanee his first Prem start.
In truth, making a case for the dependable ex-Watford man will have been tough given the performances of Anthony Martial at centre-forward, as well as the supporting cast of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. The Frenchman has hit the back of the net five times while setting up two in five matches and was involved in both goals again on Monday.
Still, since the stalemate at Spurs, the Red Devils have played five league games, with four of those coming in 13 days, so Solskjaer’s unwillingness to rest players intermittently has been odd. Admittedly, observers will throw in the old trope of not changing a winning team or disrupting the dynamic of a settled side, yet their drop-off in the second-half vs a fit Southampton side was worrying.
They not only ceded territory and possession to the Saints, the home side subsequently lost every ounce of control and fluency after the Norwegian’s changes. That, therefore, begs the question if the United boss truly trusts the players in reserve like Ighalo to come in when the stakes are high in league games.
Of course, the Nigeria forward didn’t make an appearance in Monday’s game, still, there was a noticeable decrease in quality when three of the Red Devils’ Fab Five – Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Greenwood – were replaced.
The United boss has elected to play the players on the periphery in cup competitions but this weekend’s encounter with Chelsea poses interesting questions for the club’s former striker.
Given Ighalo’s run of scoring in every game he’s started since loan switch, popular opinion might be in his favour to start vs the Blues on Sunday. However, when the quality of opponents he’s found the back of the net against is considered, this standpoint may be reconsidered.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are a side of arguably similar standing, so the 47-year-old boss may be tempted to go with his big guns at Wembley Stadium. Despite resting the heavy hitters in earlier rounds in domestic cups, history suggests this strategy is usually shelved in the latter rounds with the trophy within reach and given the strength of the opposition.
Nevertheless, with United set to play Crystal Palace on Thursday, a match that’s likely to see little or no rotation, would the 1999 Champions League winner risk playing the same XI in three games in the space of six days?
Interestingly, Man United started games against Bournemouth and Aston Villa slowly before showing their superior quality to overpower the opposition to win comfortably. They didn’t quite get away with it against Southampton, and whether recent slow starts have been a function of fatigue or complacency is anyone’s guess.
The Reds Devils have UCL qualification at stake via the league, while being only two games away from winning a 13th FA Cup title, so it’ll be intriguing to see how Solskjaer navigates a tricky run of fixtures.
If Ighalo’s ever called upon, though, expect the forward to show the same enthusiasm that has been evident in his first months at Old Trafford as United seek to end their campaign on a high.