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MARTIN SAMUEL: The fact we don’t know what Solskjaer’s Man United looks like makes for great theatre

Here’s the crux of it with Paul Pogba. Just because he played like a drain against Leicester doesn’t mean he’s wrong about Manchester United.

When United go down, Pogba tends to go down, too. It’s not the best look from a player who was supposed to be a catalyst for improvement, a problem solver in the heart of midfield. Yet he’s different for France. He was different for Juventus. Maybe he had better direction.

For Pogba to come out after a damaging, four-goal defeat on Saturday and criticise the performance almost as if he wasn’t part of it, invites ridicule.

Paul Pogba (L) played like a drain against Leicester but it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about Manchester United

For Pogba to criticise the performance almost as if he wasn't part of it, invites ridicule

For Pogba to criticise the performance almost as if he wasn’t part of it, invites ridicule

‘There’s going to be pressure on us,’ he said. ‘We need to be mature and play with more experience and arrogance, but in a good way. We need to change. We’ve been playing these kind of games for a long time and haven’t solved the problem, conceding easy, stupid goals.’

And whose fault is that, the chorus asks? Soft goals don’t just start with defensive errors. Often, the reason an opponent is in on goal is because mistakes are being made further up the field. Play isn’t being closed down, individuals aren’t working hard enough. Pogba cannot talk as if he is apart from these issues.

Yet he’s right that for such an experienced group — 532 international caps in the starting XI alone at Leicester — Manchester United can look frighteningly naive.

Basically, they can be anything. Liverpool versus Atletico Madrid is the best match of this week’s Champions League group games, but the potential for drama is at Old Trafford against Atalanta, where two sixth-placed teams meet because who knows which Manchester United will turn up?

Look at United's last seven games. They have won just two and have recorded four losses

Look at United’s last seven games. They have won just two and have recorded four losses

Look at United’s last seven games. There is a home draw to Everton, and four losses to opponents they should have been strong enough to beat: Leicester, Aston Villa, Young Boys and West Ham in the Carabao Cup. That leaves two wins. 

One came with the latest winning goal United have ever scored in Europe, at home to Villarreal, the other required, not just an 89th-minute winner from substitute Jesse Lingard, but for West Ham to miss a penalty with the last kick of the match.

And all teams ride their luck — even the best ones. Bayern Munich were the better side for Manchester United’s first Champions League win under Sir Alex Ferguson, and the second came down to John Terry’s penalty miss for Chelsea. United’s resilience in adversity in those days was as admirable as the many, many times they swept opponents off the park.

There will always be upsets but Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea — they can usually be relied upon. We know what they are about. 

The likes of Liverpool and Manchester City can usually be relied upon to get results

The likes of Liverpool and Manchester City can usually be relied upon to get results

Liverpool’s last seven games include two 3-0 wins over Crystal Palace and Norwich, a 5-1 victory in Porto and 5-0 against Watford. There are tight matches with Manchester City and AC Milan, understandably, and a complete tear-up with Brentford. A few are going to have those this season.

Manchester City are not much different. Their last seven games have brought matches against Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool — a win, a loss and a draw — but that’s elite football. The rest have been comfortable victories — RB Leipzig, Wycombe and Burnley — and the wobble of a goalless draw to Southampton.

Chelsea lost to Manchester City and Juventus, which can happen, but won against Zenit St Petersburg, Tottenham, Southampton and Brentford, and progressed on penalties against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup.

But in all of those games, win, lose or draw, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea played in a way that was recognisably theirs, that looked as if it had been drilled into them. They could ditch their colours and play in plain white T-shirts, and it would still be recognisable as the work of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel.

Liverpool, City and Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea have played in a way that was recognisably theirs

Liverpool, City and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea have played in a way that was recognisably theirs

That’s not true of United. They are yet to face a single team that was part of the proposed Super League breakaway, or would ever have been invited to join. And without knowing this is Manchester United, without the identity of colours or a badge, they would just look like 11 talented players trying to make it work.

United’s last convincing scoreline was 4-1 against Newcastle on September 11. Yet Newcastle played better than the outcome suggests; it was level with 28 minutes to go and the difference was the gulf in individual ability.

Players are why Manchester United are still just a point off the Champions League spots, and only Liverpool have outscored them this season. Throw enough money at a problem, and you get good players. Throw enough good players at a football match, and you may well win. Yet the strategy is missing and Pogba’s assessment, for all his faults, was truthful.

‘We need to find the right mentality and tactic,’ he concluded. But those attributes are set by the manager. We should know what an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer side looks like by now. That we don’t makes for wonderful theatre. Yet, increasingly, the cast may be tiring of improv.

We should know what an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Man United side looks like by now

We should know what an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man United side looks like by now

Levy must ignore entitled Spurs fans

That 13 questions are being asked of Daniel Levy by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust appears increasingly ridiculous given the club’s start to the season. Tottenham are currently outside the Champions League places on goal difference. They have won as many matches as Liverpool and Manchester City, and more than any other club bar Chelsea.

No, the campaign isn’t perfect, but Nuno Espirito Santo has only completed three full months, and has had to deal with the fall-out from Harry Kane’s failed bid to join Manchester City.

Yet Levy is quizzed as if presiding over calamity. Some of the questions are childishly loaded or have answers so obvious, engaging would be an insult to the intelligence. ‘Do you think that one trophy in 20 years is an acceptable outcome?’ Really, Levy has to waste his time responding to that?

He sacked Mauricio Pochettino. He brought in Jose Mourinho. He’s far from infallible, but nobody can argue that these were the actions of a man who wasn’t trying to win. Keeping Kane rather points that way, too. Tottenham could have entertained City, tried to force the price higher, helped balance the books. 

The only reason for standing firm on Kane would be to stay competitive. Yet question five asks: ‘Are you aware that there is a widely-held perception that football is not the priority at THFC? What would you say to Spurs supporters who feel that way?’

That 13 questions are being asked of Daniel Levy by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust appears increasingly ridiculous

That 13 questions are being asked of Daniel Levy by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust appears increasingly ridiculous

And how about this?

‘Does the board think we’ve gone forward or backwards in a footballing context over the last two years?’ Really, two years? Coincidentally, roughly the date of the club’s only Champions League or European Cup final appearance. 

Why not pick another number, like say seven — when Tottenham came sixth and were knocked out of the Europa League in the round of 16; or 12, when Tottenham finished eighth and went out of the UEFA Cup in the round of 32? Why not compare it to seasons 1990-91 to 2004-05, when a lone seventh place was their highest finish, but they came 14th or 15th on four occasions?

Taking Tottenham’s greatest season in Europe’s major competition — which still ended in defeat — and demanding everything lives up to that seems arbitrary and unrealistic. Not to mention rather entitled. 

We can all see what Tottenham’s money has been spent on of late, and it’s the best one in the land. Yes, there have been some poor performances under a new manager, but also five League wins in eight, too. What purpose is being served here beyond playing rather obviously to the gallery?

Klopp has no right to give lecture to BT

Watford safely dispatched to nil for the fifth time in six meetings — aggregate score, Liverpool 20 Watford 3 — Jurgen Klopp turned his attention to a far tougher opponent: the television companies. Again.

Rounding on BT Sport’s interviewer Des Kelly once more, he explained that Liverpool had no option but to send two Brazilian players, Alisson and Fabinho, straight to Spain to prepare for the Atletico Madrid game, because he was compromised by the juxtaposition of Brazil’s World Cup qualifier with Uruguay — which started Friday AM British time — and the Saturday midday kick-off. 

Kelly replied it was Watford who refused Liverpool’s request to shift kick-off, not the broadcasters. Klopp said if BT Sport hadn’t made it the early start, Liverpool wouldn’t have had to apply for a change. ‘So, thank you very much for your help again,’ he concluded, dripping sarcasm. ‘Really, thank you very much.’

And Des doesn’t need anyone to write his scripts, just as he doesn’t need another stand-up row with the Liverpool manager. So, while the thought no doubt occurred, he politely passed up the opportunity to thank Klopp’s club, in turn, for entering and helping drive a clandestine Super League arrangement that would have rendered BT Sport’s Premier League and Champions League contracts close to worthless. Nor did he wonder, after that betrayal, why BT Sport should give a monkey’s for Liverpool’s issues with international commitments.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has turned his attention to the television companies again

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has turned his attention to the television companies again

Nor did he add why it should be any concern of Watford’s either, given that they were exactly the sort of club that Liverpool and their elite pals were going to sell down the river. 

Perhaps this is also why some Premier League clubs are less than concerned about the Newcastle takeover, too. Given the way they were treated why should they worry that the elite may find it even harder to secure Champions League football in future?

None of this is Klopp’s fault, of course. The Super League certainly wasn’t his idea, or that of his players. As an intelligent man, however, he shouldn’t be completely mystified that right now the rest of football, from the TV studio to the boardroom at Vicarage Road, isn’t exactly aching to do Liverpool or any treacherous ally a favour.

A dismal performance on Saturday was interpreted as the case for sacking Watford manager Xisco Munoz. Players unfit, players unmotivated, of course he had to go. 

Then again, might it have been the display of a group who actually supported their manager, and were unhappy at the way he had been treated? Watford get through so many coaches we imagine the players are desensitised to the upheaval, but maybe that isn’t true. Xisco returned this squad to the Premier League. 

He won two and drew one of seven league games this season. Watford conceded no more than two goals in any league game he ever managed. 

He wasn’t doing a bad job. It doesn’t follow that the players would be glad to see him gone. Indeed, it makes more logical sense that this is what happens if good men are regarded contemptuously.

The unsung hero of Manchester City’s rise was Garry Cook. He became a figure of fun over some less than judicious comments, and left under a cloud after an unseemly spat, but in his three years he made the modern club. 

Few who worked with Cook will have a word said against him. When he arrived, City had the richest owners in English football, but were run like a corner shop. Cook asked about the human resources department. He was told a nice lady in accounts sorted out any issues with payroll. Remind you of anyone?

Newcastle have a pressing need for improvement on the field, but equally important is for somebody with a knowledge of the business of football to take the place beyond the petty cash tin and into the 21st century. 

When Cook left, the chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, thanked him for transforming the direction and infrastructure of the club. Newcastle could do worse than give him a call. It might even get them his old friend, Brian Marwood, too. Another of the men who made the modern Manchester City.

The unsung hero of Manchester City's rise was Garry Cook before leaving under a cloud

The unsung hero of Manchester City’s rise was Garry Cook before leaving under a cloud

We don’t deserve World Cup

It would appear the United Kingdom and Ireland are not going to be supported by UEFA in their bid for the 2030 World Cup. Good. 

Little that happened in or around Wembley this summer suggested a country mature enough to host a major international tournament. If UEFA support Spain and Portugal instead, as seems likely, few can complain. 

It is a terrible pity for our national partners, who did nothing wrong, but England, frankly, blew it. They had a chance to impress, a trial run, but chose violence, cocaine, disorder and putting fireworks up their rectums instead. Now, once again, we get to enjoy the choices we have made.

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