As Ole Gunner Solskjaer has breathed new life into Manchester United this season he has earned near universal praise for his work and rightly so too. The turnaround has been truly staggering at Old Trafford and the Norwegian appears to be loving life in one of the hottest of managerial hot seats.
While the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba have the fans purring, with their attacking zeal fully unleashed, there does remain a bit of an issue to fix at Old Trafford. A shabby defensive record has been hurting the club all season and it’s a problem that a bout of wonderful attacking football won’t fix either.
As Manchester United weigh up their all-important next managerial step, consideration must be paid to this issue. They simply cannot compete at the top with such a porous defence.
United’s unhealthy record of 35 conceded is only one worse than Arsenal’s much-maligned defence. Even the world class David de Gea has kept just five clean sheets so far in the Premier League as the club struggles to keep the goals out.
A lack of a commanding presence and focal point in the back four was a problem that their bitter rivals down the M62 found themselves in until quite recently.
As Jurgen Klopp begun to turn the screw at Anfield, Liverpool became the league’s entertainers, partly down to their necessity to score four or five goals a game to compensate for their woefully unreliable rearguard.
It was a problem they only really fixed when Virgil van Dijk was brought in for a whopping £75 million in January 2018. United could do well in taking note from the transformation of their rivals as they look to their future ambitions. Their current options at the back are hardly inspiring and a new recruit is surely needed to dramatically improve their chances of competing long term.
Kalidou Koulibaly is a name frequently linked to the Premier League whenever a transfer window opens. In recent months the Senegal international centre-half has been steadily linked with Old Trafford.
The Napoli man certainly ticks a lot of boxes. At 6’5 he is the commanding presence at the back that United have been lacking. He is also a footballer forged under the coaching expertise of Maurizio Sarri. As such, he is more than comfortable bringing the ball out from the back and springing attacks from deep – something well suited to a post-Mourinho Manchester United.
He also came through a decidedly sticky patch early on in his career in Italian football. As he struggled to settle and cope with the demands at Napoli, he became the scapegoat for some of the club’s problems. However, as Sarri worked his magic at the San Paolo Stadium, Koulibaly slowly blossomed into the club’s most accomplished defender and scouts slowly started to take note. This level of character, desire and self-belief to reach his current level of performance, would make him ideal to lead a renaissance of United’s defensive capability.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game though is his positional play. An inherent intelligence on a football pitch, allows Koulibaly to read a game superbly and snuff out danger with a calm assurance that breeds confidence amoungst his defensive colleagues.
There are no absolutes in football and the Premier League remains a significant step up from Serie A. Koulibaly certainly wouldn’t be the first expensive foreign import to struggle in the English top flight, if he was to make the move, and a reported transfer fee of close to £100 million will certainly increase the spotlight on the 27-year-old Senegal international.
United though, urgently need a defender to come in a make a massive impact on their defensive capabilities. Their fans will not be satisfied with yet another season of accepting a top four finish as the summit of their ambitions.
They need to be competing for the title and to do that, a step up in their current defensive options is drastically needed. Van Dijk is an obvious example of how dramatically a side can improve with a top class defensive recruitment added to their ranks. Koulibaly could offer that level of improvement, albeit as a bit of a gamble.
He is a quality defender who would improve any defensive unit. It would be bold to put him in the same bracket as Van Dijk at this stage, but if he were to swap Naples for Manchester this summer, the Red Devils title chances would improve dramatically next season.