Nobody understands the importance of strength in depth better than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Norwegian was one of four reliable strikers in Manchester United‘s legendary Treble-winning squad.
While Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were the first choice up front, Alex Ferguson knew he could shuffle his pack, start Solskjaer or Teddy Sheringham in certain games and still achieve the desired result.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first XI are thriving but Cup games have revealed a lack of depth
The likes of Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes are thriving
Solskjaer had to call in the cavalry to get past stubborn Norwich in the FA Cup quarter-finals
Now, as Solskjaer strives to bridge the gap that has opened up between United and their rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, a lack of strength in depth is becoming a concern.
United’s first-choice XI looks pretty settled. Solskjaer has fielded them in the Premier League since the resumption to great effect – United have dropped just four points from 21 available.
What’s more, there have been signs that Solskjaer’s United are beginning to look like Ferguson’s United in the way they commit numbers to attack and counter with speed and precision.
But scratch beneath the surface and it’s painfully obvious that United are thin on the ground when it comes to top-class performers.
When Solskjaer has rotated his squad for the FA Cup matches, these flaws have been exposed and it was really no surprise that Chelsea got the better of them at Wembley last Sunday.
But Chelsea proved too strong for United in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley
Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham (left) offered United excellent back-up in their Treble season
Lack of depth
UNITED’S FIRST CHOICE XI
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; Matic, Pogba; Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford; Martial
UNITED TEAM VS NORWICH
Romero; Dalot (Williams), Bailly (Martial), Maguire, Shaw; Fred (Pogba), McTominay (Matic); Mata (Greenwood), Fernandes, Lingard (Rashford); Ighalo
UNITED’S TEAM VS CHELSEA
De Gea; Bailly (Martial), Lindelof, Maguire; Wan-Bissaka (Fosu-Mensah), Matic, Fred (Pogba), Williams; Fernandes; Rashford (Ighalo), James (Greenwood)
In the quarter-final tie at Norwich, Solskjaer rested David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood from his first-choice team.
In came Sergio Romero, Diogo Dalot, Eric Bailly, Fred, Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Odion Ighalo with the result that United struggled to break Norwich down.
It took the cavalry on the bench to see United through deep into extra time, with Solskjaer bringing on Greenwood, Rashford, Matic, Pogba and Martial to rescue the situation.
And in the Chelsea semi-final on Sunday, with Solskjaer clearly – and rightly – prioritising United’s top-four pursuit in the Premier League, in came Fred, Bailly, Brandon Williams and Daniel James.
The result was that United never got a firm grip on the game with Chelsea the superior team throughout, ultimately winning comfortably. Again, Solskjaer had to turn to Martial, Pogba and Greenwood off the bench but it was too late.
While the FA Cup was the least of United’s priorities for the season finale, the performance would have sounded some loud alarm bells for the manager about squad depth.
The expectation is that United will perform much better next season but it’s going to be a long slog and doubly so if they end up in the Europa League rather than the Champions League.
With barely any pre-season to work on new ideas, everything will have to be done off the cuff amid a tightly-packed and unforgiving fixture schedule.
Jadon Sancho is one of United’s foremost transfer targets for when the summer window opens
Odion Ighalo has done well for United but his loan is due to expire at the end of January
What’s more, if United don’t win the Europa League in August, the pressure on Solskjaer to deliver a first piece of silverware will ramp up.
It’s no secret that United want to bring in a top-class attacking player this summer with Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho probably the most desirable option.
But with Sancho likely to set them back in excess of £100million if the deal happens, the danger is that the whole Covid-squeezed transfer budget is blown without addressing the depth issue.
Those FA Cup games has shown that United could do with an extra centre-forward for when Ighalo’s loan expires in January plus a central midfielder, a right-back to cover Wan-Bissaka and at least one more central defender.
Only then will Solskjaer feel confident that his second string can get the job done and the important players can be carefully managed to avoid burn-out.
But first the summer must see a clearing of the decks in the United squad. As well as urgently offloading Alexis Sanchez and his £400,000 a week from the wage bill, the likes of Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Mata and Dalot could also depart Old Trafford.
Removing Alexis Sanchez from the wage bill when he returns from Inter has to be a priority
Jesse Lingard must feel that his time at United is drawing to a close amid limited game time
Right-back Diogo Dalot has also struggled to compete for a regular place in the United side
Some of these players are already out on loan and others either don’t play regularly enough or simply aren’t good enough for United.
In terms of centre-backs, that would leave Harry Maguire, Lindelof, Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe, who has endured rotten luck with injuries this season.
United highly rate academy prospect Teden Mengi but he’s only 18 and hasn’t yet played in the first-team.
Ideally, United would have five or six centre-back options to help cover for injuries, loss of form and the sheer weight of fixtures. The priority must be an upgrade on Lindelof to partner Maguire.
They’ve been linked with Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake, Benoit Badiashile of Monaco and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and though United have looked better defensively this season they won’t take the next step until a centre-back is bought.
At right-back, it’s clear Wan-Bissaka is here for the long term after a brilliant first season but Dalot has proved injury-prone and struggled for game time.
Solskjaer’s chat with Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake sparked plenty of transfer rumours
Napoli centre-half Kalidou Koulibaly is another player linked with a possible move to United
One possibility is academy graduate Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who played at Crystal Palace last week after his own injury-interrupted campaign, but any injury setback to Wan-Bissaka next season and United would have issues.
At least at left-back, young Brandon Williams has proved himself a good alternative to Luke Shaw having been first choice there earlier in the season.
In midfield, United are better stocked. Matic has won his place back ahead of McTominay and Fred, looking solid alongside Pogba in recent league games.
McTominay is an assured presence and Fred has improved even if quite a few will continue to doubt if he’s of United calibre.
United could do with a versatile midfield presence, a utility man in the mould of Phil Neville or John O’Shea, for when injuries strike but it’s not as pressing as the other positions.
Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba have formed a good midfield partnership in recent weeks
Fred and Scott McTominay are two alternatives for United in the central midfield position
The January purchase of Bruno Fernandes has settled the debate over who plays the No 10 role and if United do buy Sancho, they’d have him, Greenwood, James, Rashford, Martial and Ighalo even after any clear-out.
But another striker wouldn’t go amiss. When injuries in the attacking department mounted up earlier in the season, United looked blunt going forward, relying on the young shoulders of Greenwood.
Rio Ferdinand suggested the other day that United should move for Raul Jimenez of Wolves while the club have been linked with Torino forward Andrea Belotti, who has scored 22 goals this season.
Rio Ferdinand suggested that United should make a move for the Wolves striker Raul Jimenez
Torino forward Andrea Belotti has also been linked with a summer move to Old Trafford
Free agent Edinson Cavani could be another option for United if they chase a centre forward
They could do much worse than getting Edinson Cavani in on a free transfer following his release by Paris Saint-Germain. He’d bring a wealth of experience and has become accustomed to sitting on the bench, only to often make an impact when he does play.
A quick scan of United’s squad shows they have about 20 players likely to still be there at the start of next season. This needs to be at least 25 to ensure the necessary depth to compete on four fronts next season.
It’s what Solskjaer will have to spend his exceedingly short summer putting right.
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The best scouting success stories: from Alan Pardew’s French revolution to Southampton’s wonderkids
Arsenal made the surprising decision to get rid of well-renowned scout Francis Cagigao as part of their wide-scale redundancies earlier this week.
Sportsmail exclusively revealed on Wednesday that Cagigao is one of 55 redundancies being made by the Gunners as they look to repair the financial damage caused by coronavirus pandemic.
The Spaniard, who held the role of Head of International Scouting at Arsenal, was responsible for the signings of Cesc Fabregas and current vice-captain Hector Bellerin from the Barcelona youth academy.
Arsenal are making transfer expert Francis Cagigao redundant due to the Covid-19 crisis
Cagigao also scouted current Arsenal fan favourite Gabriel Martinelli, who was signed from Brazilian minnows Ituano last summer.
But Cagigao is not the only Premier League scout to have hit the jackpot with his finds in previous seasons. Leicester enjoyed huge success under Steve Walsh while Malcolm Elias oversaw huge youth development at Southampton.
Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the best scouting success stories from around the Premier League…
Under the watchful eye of former head of youth development Malcolm Elias, Southampton nurtured some of Europe’s top talent at the beginning of the 21st century.
Elias, alongside academy director Huw Jennings and youth coach Steve Wigley, helped to scout and develop the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw at the St Mary’s academy.
Ex-Southampton scout Malcolm Elias helped develop several top-class youngsters at St Mary’s
The best spot from Elias was Gareth Bale, who is now a LaLiga and Champions League winner
Real Madrid winger Bale has gone on to win the Spanish top flight and several Champions League trophies with the LaLiga giants, but Southampton cashed in for just £10million in 2007 when he left for Tottenham.
Elias also spotted Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who were both bought by Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in two separate £12m deals.
The latter is now a Premier League champion with Liverpool, while Walcott netted over 100 goals for the Gunners before joining Everton.
Elias scouted Theo Walcott (left) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (right) who starred at Arsenal
Shaw, meanwhile, enjoyed a run in the Southampton side under Mauricio Pochettino, before moving to Manchester United for £30m.
He is now the first-choice left-back for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Elias also held a similar role at Liverpool, before joining Fulham in 2009 as their head of talent ID and recruitment.
A lot of praise for Leicester’s remarkable Premier League title win in 2015-16 is given to manager Claudio Ranieri and his playing staff, though the Foxes’ former chief scout Steve Walsh was the man who masterminded the shock triumph from behind the scenes.
Walsh joined Leicester in 2008 and was responsible for bringing Vardy to the club, having scouted the Englishman at non-league side Fleetwood Town.
Recruitment chief Steve Walsh helped Leicester City win the 2015-16 Premier League
Walsh was responsible for scouting Riyad Mahrez (top) and Jamie Vardy (bottom)
He was also the man who plucked N’Golo Kante from obscurity. The Frenchman was key to the Foxes’ title win and is now regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
Kante was bought from French side Caen, who had just been promoted to the French top flight, for around £5.6m. He was sold on a year later to Chelsea for £32m.
Walsh also brought young winger Riyad Mahrez to the club from French second-tier side Le Havre in 2014, who also helped the Foxes win the title before joining Manchester City for £60m.
After Leicester’s title win, Walsh joined Everton as director of football but his recruitment was much less successful. He was relieved of his duties in May 2018 and replaced by Marcel Brands.
Leicester’s recruitment guru also scouted N’Golo Kante, who joined the Foxes for £5.6m
In the 2011-12 season, Alan Pardew’s red-hot Newcastle side threatened to qualify for the Champions League, having built a squad with flair and attacking promise.
The Magpies were spearheaded by Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba up front and Hatem Ben Arfa in wide positions.
Behind them, Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote guarded the back line in midfield, but the raft of new signings could only finish in sixth place.
Graham Carr (above) helped to build Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United team in 2012
Carr managed to scout Yohan Cabaye (left), Papiss Cisse (middle) and Cheick Tiote (right)
Chief scout Graham Carr, father of comedian Alan, was responsible for signing those five players, who had all been handpicked from the French, German and Dutch leagues.
While Cisse and Marveaux’s careers peaked at St James’ Park, Ben Arfa and Cabaye would go on to play for French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Carr now works as an associate director at newly-promoted League One side Northampton Town.
Ex-Newcastle hero Hatem Ben Arfa (above) was another signing recommended by Carr
Piet De Visser
Former Dutch manager Piet De Visser joined Chelsea in 2005 as a scout and personal advisor on transfers to club owner Roman Abramovich.
De Visser noticed that the Blues had spent far too much money on African players Didier Drogba and Michael Essien in the first two summer transfer windows of Abramovich’s reign.
He recommended cheaper but equally effective signings at Stamford Bridge.
85-year-old Dutchman Piet De Visser is a close advisor to Roman Abramovich at Chelsea
Among the Dutchman’s recommendations were Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel, who joined the west London club in 2006 and won multiple titles with the Blues.
De Visser also told the club to sign Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and while the Belgian duo flopped at Chelsea, they are now two of the best players in the world in their positions.
The 85-year-old scout is still offering advice to Chelsea and Abramovich on transfers today.
De Visser recommended Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to Chelesea in the early 2010s
French scouting expert Damien Comolli has made shrewd signings at Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, having been a scout, coach and director of football at all three Premier League sides.
Comolli’s best spots came while working at Arsenal, where he recommended defenders Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue to former boss Arsene Wenger.
Damien Comolli has had scouting roles at Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur
Toure signed from the Ivory Coast’s top division after a successful trial in north London, while Eboue and Clichy were plucked from the Swiss top-flight and French lower leagues respectively.
Comolli held a similar role at Tottenham, where he recommended the club sign Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Luka Modric in 2008.
Modric would go on to win the Champions League several times with Real Madrid and also the Ballon d’Or in 2018.
Comolli told Arsene Wenger to sign defenders Kolo Toure (left) and Emmanuel Eboue (far right)
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Rangers 3-0 St Mirren: Alfredo Morelos strikes twice as Steven Gerrard’s side cruise to victory
At last, a well-timed reminder of what all the fuss has been about. Questions about the true value of Alfredo Morelos are easier to answer when he performs like this.
Last Thursday night, Steven Gerrard admitted the Colombian’s head had ‘been turned’ by persistent transfer speculation. With Lille still in pursuit of his signature, Morelos produced a sluggish display against Bayer Leverkusen that didn’t exactly exude commitment to the Rangers cause.
Perceptions were very different less than 72 hours on.
Alfredo Morelos scored a brace as Rangers beat St. Mirren 3-0 in their second league match
The Colombian striker scored two quick-fire goals in five minutes to secure three points
Retained in the starting line-up by Gerrard, Morelos scored his first two Premiership goals of 2020 in a 74-minute contribution that carried belated echoes of his excellent form from the previous year. Constantly looking to be involved, he was a key link in a dominant team display and could easily have claimed a hat-trick.
Lille may yet return to the table with an offer than swiftly expedites his exit. For now, though, Morelos has dispelled some of the doubts about his continuing worth to Gerrard’s squad while he remains in Glasgow.
A handshake with Gerrard confirmed the manager’s satisfaction with what he’d seen. Replacing Morelos with new £2.5 million signing Cedric Itten also underlined the depth of options currently available at Ibrox. As it was, the Swiss international didn’t have much chance to impress during his 16-minute debut as a comfortable afternoon for Rangers eased towards its conclusion.
Morelos had netted just once in his previous 13 appearances, so there was no doubt about the major positive from a happy, hassle-free homecoming for Gerrard.
Rangers XI: McLaughlin, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic (Bassey 79′), Kamara, Jack (Davis 74′), Aribo (Arfield 74′), Hagi, Kent (Barker 79′), Morelos (Itten 75′).
Unused Subs: Firth, Helander, Patterson, Jones, Arfield.
Goals: McCarthy OG 23′, Morelos 69′, 74′.
St. Mirren XI: Alnwick, Fraser, Shaughnessy, McCarthy, Tait, MacPherson (Jamieson 85′), Foley (Erhahon 85′), Sheron (Morias 75′), McGrath, Durmus (McAllister 78′), Obika (Thorvaldsson 84′).
Unused Subs: Baird, Henderson, Jack, Lyness.
This was his side’s first Premiership fixture at Ibrox since a 1-0 defeat to Hamilton on March 4, a dismal affair that signalled the further unravelling of last season’s challenge. It wasn’t just empty stands that signalled change this time round. Racking up many more days like this one will be a vital element of the attempt to prevent Celtic from winning a tenth successive title.
The Morelos double added to a first half own goal from Conor McCarthy and reflected the control Rangers had throughout the match. It will be a script Gerrard hopes can be reproduced when St Johnstone visit on Wednesday night.
St Mirren face Celtic that evening in the second part of their Old Firm double header. There was no lack of commitment or energy from Jim Goodwin’s side here, but they struggled throughout to contain multiple points of threat. Morelos chief among them.
Gerrard’s decision to stick by the 24-year-old provided the main source of pre-match debate. His comments since full-time in Germany on Thursday has seemingly laid the groundwork for a demotion to the bench.
As it was, Itten was among the substitutes while fellow incomer Kemar Roofe – ‘seven to 10 days behind in his fitness preparations’, according to Gerrard – wasn’t yet ready for a place in the matchday squad.
There was, however, a competitive debut for Jon McLaughlin. Signed on a free after leaving Sunderland, the Scotland goalkeeper stepped in as Allan McGregor was still nursing a knock sustained against Bayer Leverkusen. In truth, this was the easiest of introductions. McLaughlin went through the entire first half here without seeing any meaningful action.
Conor McCarthy scored an own goal midway through to first half to give Rangers the lead
Rangers midfielder Ianis Hagi tries to get away through the St. Mirren defence as he is fouled
A reshaped St Mirren defence – including former Rangers goalkeeper Jak Alnwick – had performed impressively in an opening clean-sheet win over Livingston. This, however, was a different challenge. One that required disciplined positioning and a constant monitoring of runners as the Ibrox outfit sought to stretch them this way and that.
Morelos dropping deep asked the first question. He pinged it wide left to Ryan Kent, before Ryan Jack took over with a cross that led to Ianis Hagi scuffing a difficult shot.
The dangers of switching off were clear for St Mirren. Winger Cammy MacPherson did precisely that when he failed to track Borna Barisic on a driving run that was expertly picked out by a Connor Goldson diagonal. The Croatian’s low, fizzed cross zipped just beyond Morelos’ sliding attempt to connect.
The Colombian had a clearer chance in the 12th minute when released by Hagi, but the near post strike lacked real conviction and was smuggled away by Alnwick.
Greater expertise was needed to deny Morelos three minutes later. Joe Aribo fed off a James Tavernier pass to cut back into the heart of the penalty area. Morelos took it on the spin and got good power behind a drive repelled by a flying Alnwick save.
St Mirren posed a brief flicker of threat when Ilkay Durmas broke. Halted by a perfectly timed tackle from Leon Balogun, it was the only real interruption to the relentless pressure being applied in the opposition direction.
The inevitable happened after 23 minutes. A Barisic out-swinging corner had the visiting defence scrambling, with first Tavernier and then Jack seeing shots blocked by the massed ranks of black-and-white jerseys. Their resistance was admirable but it couldn’t last.
Joe Aribo of Rangers and Richard Tait of St Mirren fight for possession at the Ibrox Stadium
Kamara kept alive the threat by feeding Morelos, who drove a cross from the right into the six-yard area. Goldson sought to home in, but it was Saints defender McCarthy who got the touch that diverted it beyond Alnwick.
The sole consolation for Saints was in the scoreline not increasing before the break. Rangers’ dominance was near-absolute.
Tavernier came closest in truly spectacular style. When another Barisic corner was cleared, the Ibrox skipper controlled with one touch before connecting superbly with a 25-yard volley. Alnwick had to react smartly to deny a player he has known since their early days together at Newcastle.
Opposite number McLaughlin was finally given something to do a minute into the second period. And it led to a flutter of nerves.
Durmas got half a yard on Tavernier to deliver a cross that McLaughlin misjudged on the stretch. Jamie McGrath sought to capitalise with a long, angled drive that was blocked. Durmas then saw a free-kick held by McLaughlin as Saints sought to reshape the story.
The regular plot-line soon resumed, however, pitching Morelos back against Alnwick. Sharp interplay involving Hagi set up the Colombian for an instinctive strike that was heading into the bottom corner of the net before Alnwick scrambled across. Morelos threw up his arms as he wheeled away in frustration. It was a feeling amplified when he then glanced over a header from a Barisic cross.
Morelos finally got his reward in the 69th minute as he timed his run well to meet a Tavernier corner with a firm finish. A roar of delight and relief directly down the lens of a television camera explained what it meant.
Five minutes later, Barisic drove down the left and delivered a cross that was deflected into Morelos’ path. A tap-in completed the scoring.
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F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix LIVE REACTION: Max Verstappen speaks after beating Lewis Hamilton, Bottas third – LATEST
F1 is at Silverstone for a second week running and Lewis Hamilton will be hoping for a similar result.
The Brit showed incredible calmness in last week’s British Grand Prix to win even after his tire punctured on the final lap.
Hamilton, 35, will start from second today, with Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas taking pole in qualifying.
Start time: 2.10pm BST
Follow all the updates from the F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix below…
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