What Michael Carrick learned from United's win over Villarreal

Sulky Fernandes needs some love and gaping holes in defence and midfield leave Man United too reliant on De Gea… Michael Carrick’s brief reign started with a win but there’s A LOT to fix – and quickly

  • Michael Carrick began his time as Man United interim boss with a victory
  • They beat Villarreal 2-0 to reach the last-16 of the Champions League 
  • Jadon Sancho finally scored his first goal for United following his £73m move
  • He impressed but Donny van de Beek needs more game time to find his best
  • United’s midfield and defence remain wide open and slow to react to danger 
  • But there were still some encouraging signs in the wake of Solskjaer’s sacking 

Well, it wasn’t bad for starters.

Michael Carrick took the reins at Manchester United under pretty awkward circumstances but he successfully steered them into the knockout rounds of the Champions League by winning his first match in charge.

The win over Villarreal on Tuesday night felt like it should be dedicated to sacked boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having unquestionably guided United forward in the past three years before stumbling badly in recent weeks.

Michael Carrick, Man United’s caretaker manager, rightly enjoyed the moment as a 2-0 win away to Villarreal guided the side through to the knockout stages of the Champions League

United recovered from the shock of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking to claim a crucial win

But while there were positives from the 2-0 win in Spain, there were also plenty of glaring weaknesses and problems that Carrick, and whoever comes in next, will need to fix to get United back on track.

We take a look at what Carrick would have learned from the game and the issues that remain.

Fernandes still needs some love

It was surprising to see Bruno Fernandes not rush off in pursuit of Jadon Sancho after the winger smashed home his first United goal to set the seal on victory.

The Portuguese, who supplied the lay-off to tee Sancho up, just ambled along in a disinterested manner as Sancho raced off. 

In fact at one point, Sancho looked behind to see if any of his team-mates wanted to share in his joy.

It wasn’t as though Fernandes, who only came on after 66 minutes, could have been tired and so it suggested his attitude still isn’t quite right.

Fernandes (background) set Sancho up for his first United goal but then looked disinterested in celebrating the moment with him

Fernandes played well against Villarreal having come off the bench but needs a breather

Next up for Man United 

Premier League unless stated 

Sunday  Chelsea (A)

December 2 Arsenal (H)

December 5 Crystal Palace (H)

December 8 Young Boys (H)

Champions League

It was Fernandes who tried to placate the angry United fans who jeered Solskjaer after Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Watford that proved the final straw for the manager.

The Portuguese probably felt responsible for the situation to some degree after a few weeks of looking off-colour in matches.

His body language has also been poor and there were rumblings of discontent from his camp about Solskjaer’s methods long before he was fired.

But Fernandes can hardly be blamed for not scaling the same heights he did last season, when he scored 28 goals and contributed 17 assists in all competitions.

He has played football solidly since arriving at United and it was always going to catch up with him at some point. Between June 2020 and the end of the Euros, he played 87 matches for club and country – more than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues.

This season, he had started every Premier League and Champions League match for United – until last night.

Carrick was sensible to start him on the bench in Spain because Fernandes is in desperate need of a break in some form. When he was introduced, he helped change the game in United’s favour.

That may have to be the way things are done for the next few games as well to restore Fernandes’ energy levels a little.

In the meantime, Carrick must stress just how important he is to the team and show him a little love to prevent any more sulking.

Fernandes was angered by fans jeering Solskjaer after Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Watford

There’s still gaping holes in the side

By rights, United should have been dead and buried long before Cristiano Ronaldo seized on a defensive mistake to lob United into their 78th-minute lead.

David de Gea made a series of crucial saves, including two outstanding ones to deny Manu Trigueros, who was left cursing his luck.

It is too common an occurrence for United this season. The Spanish keeper has kept them in contention in too many matches.

It’s a consequence of gaping holes in defence and midfield, allowing opponents to slice through them far too easily.

United were still reliant on the crucial saves of keeper David de Gea to win in Villarreal 

One first-half save was the result of a simple long kick from the Villarreal keeper, with one player outmuscling Alex Telles, Harry Maguire not really paying attention and Fred failing to track a runner from midfield.

On another occasion, Moi Gomez was allowed to breeze away from Scott McTominay and get a shot away from the edge of the box after Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka both followed the same runner.

After the ball deflected out to Trigueros, both Maguire and Telles were too slow to react, meaning United were again indebted to De Gea for a one-handed save.

Fred and McTominay have been United’s first choice midfield pairing for quite some time now yet still can give the impression they’ve just met.

United captain Harry Maguire tries to organise a defence that still look very vulnerable

Villarreal ultimately didn’t have the quality to punish United’s openness but the likes of Leicester, Liverpool, Man City and even Watford have in recent games. Chelsea certainly will this Sunday given their sparkling form.

Carrick was an excellent midfielder for United and perhaps he could use some of his expertise to help Fred and McTominay get more of a grip in games.

The same applies to Maguire and Lindelof, the first choice central defensive pairing for a long while now, yet still all at sea in almost every match.

Van de Beek’s confidence needs to be built up

A few eyebrows were raised when the team sheets were revealed with Carrick opting for Donny van de Beek ahead of Fernandes in the United starting line-up.

Having been introduced at half time in the Watford game and then this start, it appears the Dutchman’s time to shine has come at last.

But on the evidence of the Villarreal match, Van de Beek is going to need a bit of time to rebuild his game and his confidence.

He wasn’t on the same wavelength as his team-mates for much of the evening which maybe isn’t surprising given he has barely played alongside them.

Donny van de Beek was afforded a rare United start but wasn’t on the same wavelength 

As mentioned, Fernandes can’t be relied upon in each and every game and with Paul Pogba out injured, Van de Beek should be given more opportunities in the hectic festive schedule.

Carrick should keep him in that No 10 role to unlock his full creative abilities and hopefully with a bit more game time, he will show some of the Ajax form that persuaded United to pay £40million for him in the first place.

As Sportsmail revealed on Wednesday, Van de Beek is among a collection of United players who have put exit plans on hold for this January.

Whoever the new manager is, he should receive a clean slate with 18 months of inactivity and disappointment under Solskjaer put firmly behind him. But it is up to Van de Beek now to seize that chance.

Van de Beek may get more opportunities in the weeks ahead but needs to find some form 

So United can press

Remember that horrific 5-0 defeat to Liverpool last month when United attempted to mimic the pressing game of Jurgen Klopp’s side and ended up looking like rank amateurs?

It’s clear that United are light years behind Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Man City when it comes to hustling opponents to win the ball back.

It’s something that can be worked upon but is going to take months, if not years, to get down to a fine art.

But Tuesday night was a good starting point, with Fred’s anticipation and effective pressing of Etienne Capoue from an ill-advised pass out from his keeper leading to Ronaldo’s well-taken opening goal.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s deft finish for United’s opening goal resulted from some sharp pressing

United need to make this a more regular feature of their game. The attacking line must put opponents under pressure more, especially when they try and play out from the back as is the modern fad.

Cristiano Ronaldo surely realises that chances such as the one he gobbled up at Villarreal will come his way if he and his team-mates put in those extra sprints to exert pressure.

United’s Portuguese superstar has been much-criticised for his lack of pressing and tracking back since he returned and it is surprising to see someone who takes such pride in his fitness levels not do more of it.

Ronaldo must realise that plenty of goals will come his way if United can work a proper press

He can’t be relying on young tyros Sancho, Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood to do all the work but if they all combined, then United could be so much more effective.

Carrick only had 48 hours to prepare the team for this one, and that included travel time, so it’s encouraging that better pressing was a feature of their game.

Now to get onto the training ground and make it a hallmark of United’s football. They’ll need it if they’re to hold a candle to City, Liverpool and Chelsea going forward.

Lift off for Sancho

Now that Sancho has his first goal for United – and a superb finish it was too – they will hope his confidence can take off and the England star can show exactly why they paid £73m for him.

There will no doubt be claims that the shackles have been released now Solskjaer has gone but this would be unfair.

Sancho was given plenty of game time in the opening weeks of the season and was only demoted to the bench after failing to deliver a goal or assist in quite a few games.

Jadon Sancho was delighted after finally scoring his first goal for United after his £73m move

Carrick (right) will hope that Sancho can kick on and deliver more goals and assists from here

He has subsequently been involved against Leicester, Man City and Watford, so he’s hardly been reduced to a cameo role.

Nonetheless, the first goal represents a major breakthrough for a player perhaps feeling the heavy burden of such a big price tag. That it happened with Carrick in the dug-out is mere coincidence.

The interim manager’s job now is to let Sancho enjoy the moment and encourage him to do similar against Chelsea this weekend and in the more winnable games that follow.

Sancho showed more than enough class at Borussia Dortmund to suggest he can be a real asset for United in the long term. This is surely just the start.

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