Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is plotting a tactical overhaul at Manchester United — ESPN’s Insider Notebook has the latest. PLUS: The moment PSG’s Messi dream faded.
‘McFred’ beware: Solskjaer plotting tactical overhaul at Man United
Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has told players returning to preseason training he wants to implement a more attacking 4-3-3 formation this season in a move that could spell the end for the midfield partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay, sources told ESPN.
Solskjaer is keen to include more of his attacking players in his starting XI on a regular basis and has discussed with players and staff about the possibility of using one defensive midfielder behind two more forward-thinking players. Sources told ESPN that signing a new centre-back is key to the idea, with the club chasing a deal for Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane.
Solskjaer paired Fred and McTominay together in midfield 28 times last season but the United boss is hopeful the new set-up will allow him to include Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek alongside Bruno Fernandes more regularly. Pogba, who has one year left on his contract, and Van de Beek have been linked with moves away from Old Trafford this summer but United expect both to stay.
Fred and McTominay did not start the club’s first match of last season against one of the “Big Six” as both were left on the bench for the visit of Tottenham in October. But they both came on at 4-1 down at half time as United went on to suffer an embarrassing 6-1 defeat and from there, they started every match home and away against United’s main rivals (Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) as Solskjaer’s side collected 11 points from those matches.
While Solskjaer has depended on the two players at key moments during his tenure, some sections of the club’s support have grown frustrated at a perceived over-reliance on the duo — nicknamed “McFred” owing to how often they come as a pair — and a lack of invention in attack, especially in matches where opposition teams have proven difficult to break down.
United have secured a deal with Borussia Dortmund for England winger Jadon Sancho and remain hopeful of adding a centre-back before the transfer deadline. Varane is a top target but sources told ESPN that United are having to be patient while Real Madrid and new manager Carlo Ancelotti, who will have to do without Sergio Ramos after his move to Paris Saint-Germain, attempt to convince the Frenchman to stay.
Varane has entered the last year of his contract and United have been made aware he would be willing to take up a new challenge at Old Trafford. Should Varane inform Real Madrid he has no intention of signing a new deal, it is expected the Spanish giants will look to open negotiations over a fee.
United are also interested in right-back Kieran Trippier but sources told ESPN they will not pay the release clause in his contract of more than €40 million and so far Atletico Madrid have shown no indication they are willing to compromise. — Rob Dawson
PSG believed Messi was keen on move
Paris Saint-Germain believed Lionel Messi was so open to the idea of leaving Barcelona this summer that sporting director Leonardo had mentioned him as part of his plans for the new season when meeting with agents this summer to discuss transfers, sources told ESPN.
Messi has agreed a new five-year deal at Barcelona, on a significantly reduced salary, but had been weighing up his options. He came close to leaving Camp Nou last summer before making a shock U-turn and this time around, he was also open to leaving.
PSG positioned themselves at the front of the queue for his signature early on, with Leonardo and PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in contact with the player’s representatives throughout the discussions over his future. The Ligue 1 giants had crunched the numbers and there was a belief within the club that they could afford to sign Messi as well as keep star players Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. The former Barcelona forward also tried to convince Messi to come to Paris, and Argentina internationals Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria also had conversations with him, sources said.
PSG’s optimism over a deal wavered significantly when Sergio Aguero completed his free transfer to Barcelona, with the former Manchester City striker close friends with Messi. At that point, sources said, PSG started to back away from pursuing a potential deal as they wanted to move on to more realistic targets.
The Ligue 1 side will continue to monitor Messi’s situation throughout this latest contract, but sources said the club believe he will end up in Major League Soccer instead of remaining in Europe, with Inter Miami rumoured to be Messi’s next destination. — Julien Laurens
Sid Lowe breaks down how Lionel Messi came to terms on his extension with Barcelona.
Barcelona’s Coutinho conundrum
Barca desperately need to move players on to balance the books this summer, with gross debt over €1 billion. A failure to do so could see them fall foul of La Liga’s Financial Fair Play rules, which could then prevent them from registering Lionel Messi‘s new deal with the league for the upcoming season.
Coutinho, 29, is one of the biggest earners at the club, with a salary of around €20m gross, and was expected to be one of the players to leave Camp Nou in the transfer window. However, sources say the Brazilian could yet be handed another chance at Barca, with Antoine Griezmann, Miralem Pjanic and Samuel Umtiti the players most likely to leave in the short-term.
Barca paid €120 million to Liverpool for Coutinho in 2018 with another €40m due in potential add-ons. The Catalan club are aware that recovering anything like that amount in a COVID-19 affected market is not going to happen.
The other option would be a loan, with sources confirming AC Milan are interested, but Barca see no sense in letting him leave if they still have to cover a big chunk of his salary. Therefore, with over a month to go in the window, Barca are prepared to keep Coutinho, with coach Ronald Koeman happy to count on him. Only a considerable transfer fee or a generous loan offer would change their stance.
Coutinho, meanwhile, returned to Barcelona for preseason last week as he recovers from a knee injury that has ruled him out since last December. — Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens
VAR and the Premier League: Good news and bad news
One of the great successes of VAR at Euro 2020 was the speed at which decisions were made, especially for offside calls. But sorry, Premier League fans: that won’t happen for you this season.
Supporters have been infuriated by long delays while they watch the VAR apply offside lines, often resulting in goals disallowed by the tightest of margins. And it won’t be getting quicker any time soon.
At Euro 2020, UEFA appointed twice as many officials for each game, including a dedicated VAR for offside. In domestic leagues, everything is done by one lead VAR, who must check the incident, the attacking phase and any offside in the move (of which there could be multiple). UEFA used an assistant referee from each of the top five leagues to act as the offside VAR across the 51 games at Euro 2020, with Lee Betts the Premier League’s representative. Having a dedicated offside VAR speeds up the process, but sources told ESPN that issues with resources and logistics mean the Premier League cannot do the same. There simply aren’t enough qualified assistants to fill an additional VAR role for offside across every Premier League game.
It’s not all bad news, though. The Premier League will add a tolerance level, as seen at Euro 2020, which means the final image in offside calls must produce a conclusive result for offside to be given.
What would this change? Think back to 2020-21 and Jordan Henderson‘s disallowed winner for Liverpool against Everton in October when Sadio Mane was given offside, or in November with Mohamed Salah at Brighton and Patrick Bamford for Leeds at Crystal Palace.
Fans will also no longer be shown the working out process, so no geometry lessons anymore either. — Dale Johnson
Who needs Varane? PSG academy star looks to make history
PSG continue to be linked with Raphael Varane but Manchester United lead the chase for the Real Madrid defender … and in any case, the Parisians may not need him, with a new sensation from the academy, El Chadaille Bitshiabu, earmarked to break through this season.
Bitshiabu, 16, has enjoyed a rapid rise at PSG and clubs across Europe have targeted him, but he has an academy contract in France until 2023 and the club are looking to offer him a professional deal very soon.
At 6-foot-4, the centre-back is an imposing figure and coaches at PSG have been impressed with how he brings the ball out of defence. While still a teenager, Bitshiabu has shown great maturity already and represented PSG’s Under-16 team when he was just 12. At 15, Bitshiabu played for France’s U18s.
The defender made his first appearance for PSG against Le Mans on Wednesday where he came on at half time in their first friendly of preseason and he impressed coach Mauricio Pochettino. The PSG coach is thinking about him for the first team for the coming season, with Bitshiabu looking to become the youngest player to represent PSG. That record belongs to Kingsley Coman who made his debut at 16 years, eight months. — Julien Laurens
Luis Garcia discusses Raphael Varane’s future at Real Madrid after the defender was linked to Man United.
Adidas on-board with Mata’s Common Goal
Common Goal, co-founded by Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata, has received a boost after adidas pledged to donate 1% of their annual sales of footballs until 2023 to the fund which totals over €3 million.
More than 200 players and managers including Mata, Giorgio Chiellini, Paulo Dybala and Jurgen Klopp have donated a portion of their wages to the initiative, which is a collective fund raising money to invest in football charities to drive social change around the world.
“I’ve been a part of the adidas family for many years and with Common Goal from the very beginning, so this collaboration is very special,” Mata said, who has signed a new one-year contract to stay at Old Trafford until 2022.
“This partnership will help us to use football as a force for good and come together to try and tackle social issues as one. This is really only the start. For me, team play is the most important thing and through solidarity, empathy and effort, I believe that anyone can reach their goals. Our ambition is to make Common Goal the biggest football club in the world, where everyone is welcome.” — Rob Dawson