Michael Carrick has taken the reins from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now faces a crunch period which could likely make or break Manchester United’s season
The man unfortunate enough to have to pick up the pieces immediately is none other than Michael Carrick, and the former midfield maestro needs to act both boldly and quickly.
Time stops for no man… or no elite level football team… and United find themselves thrust back into the action on Tuesday evening.
Villarreal are the opponents, in a Champions League group match which United can ill afford to lose.
They sit joint top of Group F with the Spaniards as things stands, with both clubs having taken seven points so far. Yet, with Serie A outfit Atalanta breathing down the neck with five points, and Young Boys having picked up three of their own, things could not be more tense.
It’s the away trip the new interim manager could certainly have done without, but now it is time to stand up and be counted.
Carrick has already publicly stated he ‘has his own ideas,’ so Sportsmail opted to take a look at what these could likely comprise of…
Donny’s time to shine
Many issues may have been fermenting under Solskjaer but the biggest eyesore of all was the ongoing feud with Donny van de Beek.
The Dutchman resembled a prisoner under the Solskjaer regime, and we may truly never know the reasons as to why the creative Dutchman simply wasn’t looked at.
His £35million switch from Ajax goes down as one of the most puzzling in recent Premier League history.
If anything, it quickly became clear that Solskjaer did not sanction the signing of the playmaker, and had little to no intention of playing him.
Donny van de Beek endured torment under Solskjaer and was clearly not preferred at all
At the last instance of facing Villarreal, Van de Beek was left furiously throwing his bib to the ground and had to be consoled by team-mates after warming up for long periods of the match only to be completely disregarded.
It was typical then, that in Solskjaer’s last game in charge, it would be Van de Beek to grab United’s only goal in the demoralising 4-1 defeat to Watford. The Dutchman was handed a rare chance and grasped it, hard.
Now, does Carrick pick up where Solskjaer left off and keep him in the starting XI for the trip to Spain?
The option could provide a much needed breath of fresh air into the team, and equip Carrick with a player who has everything to prove.
At times like these, wiping the slate clean is never usually a bad thing. Van de Beek’s moment could arrive… at last.
Lingard’s last chance?
In similar fashion, Jesse Lingard is on the same thin ice.
United could and perhaps should have cashed in on Lingard in the summer, following his sizzling spell with West Ham.
Instead, they held firm for no discernable reason. Lingard as a result has gone backwards and has been left bitterly frustrated as a result.
Lingard already has an eye on a January loan move before an inevitable free transfer exit in the summer, yet Carrick could have a real opportunity on his hands here if he handles the situation correctly.
Jesse Lingard is desperate to play and Carrick could now use this to his advantage
Lingard is desperate to play and will also be mindful that there is no time like the present to put himself in the shop window and encourage as many offers as possible for his services.
The more offers, the greater leverage when it comes to requesting a lucrative contract.
United are at rock bottom right now and need players to stand up and be counted. For somebody like Lingard, it perhaps feels like things cannot get any worse right now. And so, in turn, a degree of pressure is lifting.
Carrick needs to strike a deal with the England international, stipulating that he will get plenty of match action if he can recapture his dazzling form and bring his United career to an impressive end.
When United committed an initial £75m to signing Jadon Sancho in the summer – in a deal which could yet rise to £150m! – nobody at all believed November would come and almost go without him even having broken into the team.
Of course, coming into Premier League football is notoriously hard but Sancho has spent the last few season establishing himself as one of the most formidable young talents in Europe.
United appeared to get the whole situation horribly wrong when the two-year long pursuit of Sancho was finally pulled off… only to be immediately overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s shock homecoming.
Now, this is not to say that having both Ronaldo and Sancho in the same team is a bad thing, that would be foolish. But having the veteran Portuguese front and centre and only occasionally giving Sancho a shot at flanking him is simply not working.
Jadon Sancho has become the marquee summer signing who can’t settle into the team
The 21-year-old is craving confidence, and has been suffering from a complete lack thereof.
Being the main man at a team of United’s stature is no easy feat, though it does beg consideration that had Ronaldo not been re-signed, would Sancho have benefitted playing week-in and week-out alongside the likes of Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford?
What could have been a youthful and fearless front line quickly became an attacking focal point based around one of the most iconic players to have ever kicked a ball. Sancho has shrunk into the shadows as a result.
Now, it’s on Carrick’s shoulders – for the time being – to get this sorted out.
Sometimes big clubs can afford for a summer signing to fail or underwhelm… but not United with Sancho. Huge finances have been poured into the deal and the former Dortmund ace has the potential to become one of the most valuable stars on the planet.
It’s certainly a case of proceeding cautiously with this one.
Before the days of Ronaldo’s homecoming it was commonplace for Fernandes to steal the limelight every week.
He is certainly well used to it, but this season it is much different.
Fernandes is making the headlines for the wrong reasons. The frustration is piling up on his shoulders and this is perhaps in part due to him not being the main man.
United added some of Europe’s finest names to the squad in the summer – who were supposed to dazzle alongside Fernandes and drive both him and the club to the next level – but it just hasn’t happened.
Now, Fernandes needs to regroup and get back to his best.
After growing visibly irate with the travelling United fans at Vicarage Road, wagging his finger animatedly and coming to the defence of Solskjaer, Fernandes has cut a very heated figure.
Bruno Fernandes has found himself in the firing line and is struggling to deal with the pressure
Carrick now needs to address this with sensitivity. Fernandes needs to be pulled from the firing line, yet still utilised to the best of his outrageous abilities.
Don’t be surprised to see the former Sporting Lisbon man deployed slightly differently in the coming weeks, or perhaps introduced from the bench in order to make maximum impact.
The weight of responsibility at a super club can sometimes drag a player under completely and all but de-rail their season. Carrick will have seen this before during his own lengthy career at the highest level.
The warning signs are there and now it’s time to act. Getting Fernandes back in gear will likely stand top of the agenda.
It seems a strange thing to write, given Ronaldo’s focus, dedication and determination never, ever drops.
Yet it is only natural that many within the squad – the imperious Ronaldo included – will be feeling somewhat deflated.
While results and statistics suggested it was correct to relieve Solskjaer of his duties, many of the United stars will feel as though they have let their manager down.
Cristiano Ronaldo paid an emotional tribute to Solskjaer after he was sacked by United
Few players have the experience of seeing one of their team-mates turn into their boss, and so for Ronaldo the connection was two-fold.
For Carrick however, this could play nicely into his hands.
An already prolific Ronaldo now has even more cause to be fired up and take out his grievances on upcoming opponents.
The ball is now in Carrick’s court to ensure the right things are said, and to set up his first team as interim United manager to orbit around Ronaldo yet also still maximise the array of talent throughout the entirety of his starting XI.
It is, of course, easier said than done. Particularly when the stakes are this high.
It goes without saying that United’s defence hasn’t been up to scratch this season.
Big defeats to both Liverpool and Manchester City stung, but to then concede four goals to Watford and have the captain sent off was something else entirely.
While Carrick earned his stripes at the heart of the park during his playing days, the Tyneside hero certainly knows the art of keeping tight lines.
Often deployed in the deepest of midfield roles to help marshal across defence, Carrick is versed in the nuances of composure, balance and keeping the ball out of the back of your own net.
A saving grace will arrive in the form of Raphael Varane’s return, but Carrick must ensure the conceding of goals is plugged well before then.
United’s defence simply hasn’t been up to scratch and a pressing concern to new man Carrick
Maguire’s suspension following the Watford nightmare will not help matters, but against Villarreal he has the chance to field his captain alongside Eric Bailly in front of David De Gea.
In facing Unai Emery’s men on Tuesday night, Carrick may well be tempted to deploy Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles as his full-backs of choice, and the message will likely be one of basics and simplicity.
United need to do the fundamentals correctly, in order to go step-by-step. Running before they can walk steadily again could be disastrous right now.
If anything, playing away from the mighty leer of Old Trafford may actually help Carrick and his defenders in their first match together.
Drawing at the Estadio de la Cerámica will not be the end of the world right now… but losing will.