A year ago Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was made manager of Manchester United after yet another collapse in Jose Mourinho’s third season at a club.
Appointed as caretaker until the end of the season, Solskjaer was a simple choice to curry favour with supporters: a club legend and reminder of good times, any success would be a bonus while they searched for Mourinho’s replacement. Solskjaer ended up turning United’s season around though, losing only one game in the Premier League and mounting an unlikely comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League before he was announced as permanent manager on March 28th.
From there United collapsed (maybe this is confirmation bias but this seems to happen every time a caretaker is given a permanent contract mid-season. What do they lose by just waiting to the summer?), winning just two of their remaining eight games in the league and getting dumped out of Europe by Barcelona.
Questions were already beginning to be asked at the tail end of the season and summer business did little to assuage concerns, as the club only brought in decent young British players Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James rather than ready-made top quality reinforcements, all while offloading the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia.
Sitting in fifth place, some distance behind the Champions League spots but above Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, United are peering enviously at their rivals yet at the same time aren’t having a disastrous season. They have claimed big scalps, but have also dropped points to teams they should be beating.
The result is a side that’s neither good enough or bad enough to make any consensus over Solskjaer’s future at the club possible, and his legend status only complicates matters more.
In our analysis of the early stages of Solskjaer’s tenure, we talked about how the Norwegian appeared to be the antithesis of Mourinho, offering positivity as the antidote to the Portuguese’s negativity. That wasn’t a viable long-term strategy though: players who wanted to escape the public criticism of their former manager may have been happy to work with the more encouraging Solskjaer until the summer, however committing to a long-term project with someone who would still be managing Molde if he weren’t in Manchester, while your rivals are coached by the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, is a different matter. With a squad of players with questionable attitudes, it’s perhaps not surprising that the new manager bounce dropped off a cliff as soon as the role was made permanent.
This is simply conjecture though. What we can judge Solskjaer on is how his team plays, and that is more in keeping with United’s traditions than any manager since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United set up to attack quickly, utilising the pace of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James to spring forward and catch out the opposition. Where this strategy has fallen down is against teams who deny United that space in behind, forcing them into playing more patiently to break down packed defences.
A simple look at the goals that United have scored this season make it obvious what they are good at. Whether winning the ball back deep or in attack, they will look to break forward as quickly as possible, getting multiple men sprinting at the opposition backline.
There’s little particularly complicated about this strategy. Martial’s movement is the best, opening up space for his teammates or holding back to take advantage of others’ running and create a shooting angle for himself, while Rashford shows some basic but important striker’s movement in the box, running in the direction of one post before cutting back in the direction of the other, such as against Liverpool where he ran towards the near post to drag Joel Matip in that direction, opening up space at the back post for him to finish.
Aside from them though, there’s little imagination to the forwards’ movement. They tend to run in straight lines and they don’t even really pull wide to stretch the opposition defence.
United’s counter-attacking is instead more about overloading the opposition defence, swarming them with lots of quick technical players. Ideally one of the attackers will be able to run in behind, putting them one-on-one with the goalkeeper to finish, but if that’s not possible United will look to either slip in whoever’s best-positioned to score or look to combine with one-touch passes and neat flicks to work somebody into a shooting position. The narrow positioning of the attackers might mean that the opposition defence doesn’t get stretched, but it does mean there are plenty of players in shooting positions or close together to play quick passes amongst themselves.
As well as simply getting men forward, those players require a certain skillset. The most obvious requirement is pace: to be able to break forward quickly, those players need to be able to actually cover the ground to do so. Rashford, Martial, James, Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood are all capable of winning a foot race against defenders, allowing them to run in behind the opposition defensive line before they know what’s hit them.
As Lukaku showed last year though, there’s no point having pace if your touch is so bad you give the ball straight back to the opposition when it’s passed to you. There are technical requirements. As well as simply running fast, you have to be able to carry the ball at speed, as when the deeper players release these counters, the attackers tend to first receive the ball near the half-way line. From there, they obviously need to carry the ball into attack, keeping it close enough to them so that a defender can’t come over and snatch it back, but moving fast enough to stop the opposition from being able to get men back to defend. On top of this, they also need to be able to pass and shoot to be able to set up their teammates and finish off these moves themselves.
Martial is clearly the most talented of United’s frontline, possessing the pace, finishing, dribbling and touch to both supply and score goals, but also the intelligence to get himself into positions where those attributes are most dangerous – making runs in behind defenders as they move out to close down a teammate or holding back near the edge of the box to give himself room to shoot when a teammate forces the backline towards their six yard box. It’s also Martial who these counters are best played through, dropping off to receive the ball to feet in space from the deeper players then turning to play in his onrushing teammates.
Top scorer Rashford has also impressed. He still has a tendency to dribble down blind alleys, isolating himself from his teammates so even if he does beat one man, he’s running into a second, however, while it’s still not perfect, he has improved his link-up play – there’s still plenty of overhit passes yet there’s just as many neat flicks to a teammate.
Although nowhere near as good, there’s shades of Cristiano Ronaldo in his finishing. He seems to hit the ball with the side of his foot rather than striking through it with his instep, yet rather than passing or curving it into the net as this technique usually encourages, he rifles it in with powerful flat shots like the Portuguese.
New boy James has all the markings of a United player: a quick tricky winger looking to beat his man and slip a pass through to his teammates. Although seemingly preferring to keep it simple and focus on his dribbling, the Welshman has also shown a decent eye for a cross or shot.
Eighteen-year-old Greenwood has unsurprisingly featured mainly as a substitute. He doesn’t have the dribbling ability to leave a defender for dead like some of his teammates but his footwork is good enough to give himself an opening for a pass or shot, and it’s these shots that have United fans excited for his future. Regardless of the angle, Greenwood seems to be able to squeak a low shot inside the post. Despite having just two starts in the league, only Martial and Rashford have scored more than him this season.
Not a great finisher, Lingard possesses little of the goal threat of his attacking teammates, however he does pass the ball well and can dribble. Dealing with personal issues, he’s struggled for form this season, frequently giving the ball away with poor touches. Even at his best though, he was more a player to knit play together and keep the ball moving rather than someone who was going to pull out a goal from nowhere.
Andreas Pereira has also been used through the middle but, while he has a good eye for a pass and can get up and down the pitch, he lacks the pace, dribbling and goal threat of his teammates. He’s more of a box-to-box midfielder than an attacking one.
While the counter-attacks themselves come more from the qualities of the players than any pre-planned moves, Solskjaer clearly sets up to enable these counters. Under Mourinho, United’s counter-attacking was limited by their slow players but also by the way he had his attackers track back to defend. It’s difficult for a winger to pose an attacking threat when he has to run the length of the pitch each time because he’s also expected to follow the full-back deep into his half.
Solskjaer has done away with this. The front four are expected to drop back into their half to defend, however they only really fall back into the final third when defending a lead. Most of the time, once the ball enters their defensive third, United’s frontmen stay high up the pitch. While this means that several opposition players end up going free when attacking, it also means that United can immediately attack when they win the ball back, hitting it up to a four man attack waiting to expose an understaffed defence.
This set-up leaves the majority of the defending to the back four and holding midfielders, however United’s forwards aren’t left completely off the hook: their pressing is used to guide the opposition into areas that make it easier for the deeper players to defend.
United press in a 4-2-3-1 shape with the striker positioning himself high between the two centre-backs while the attacking midfielders form a narrow band of three behind him. With the narrow attacking midfielders blocking the passes into midfield, teams attempting to play through United’s press tend to pass short to one of the centre-backs. The striker will then move across to press that centre-back, usually cutting off the pass across to the other centre-back in an attempt to keep the opposition on that side of the field.
The pass across to his partner blocked by the striker and the passes into midfield cut out by the attacking midfielders, the centre-back generally ends up playing back to the goalkeeper, which simply restarts the move, or out to the full-back. Once the ball is passed out to the flank, United move to trap the opposition against the touchline. The striker moves across to discourage the pass back to the centre-back and the winger moves across to close down the full-back while blocking the pass inside. This encourages the opposition to try and play down the line, where United’s full-back will move out to get close to the winger and the holding midfielders will move across to block off any attempt to play back inside.
United’s forwards might not track back very far, but their defensive work higher up the pitch means that the backline tends to have to defend in easier situations near the touchline. If they actually manage to win back the ball high up the pitch then even better: they can immediately counter while the opposition is strewn across the pitch from trying to play out.
The press varies a little depending on which side the ball is passed down. Play to United’s right and when Martial closes down the centre-back, Rashford will generally push up near the other centre-back. While this makes it even harder for the opposition to play out to the other side and puts him in an excellent position to attack the box, this high position leaves the full-back behind him unmarked, requiring the left-back to cover a lot of distance to rush up and cover. This can cause issues for the rest of the backline, who have to adjust their positions to cover for the left-back.
If the opposition play to United’s left, then the situation is simpler. James doesn’t generally push up to the centre-back like Rashford does, so while it makes it easier for the opposition to switch play to the other side, United are in a good defensive shape to just drop off and regroup.
Nullify United’s press and they will drop back into a narrow 4-4-2, which has largely the same purpose as the press: cutting off the options through the centre to encourage the opposition to play wide, where United try to trap them against the touchline and win back the ball.
As mentioned before though, United’s backline only have the support of their frontline to a certain point. It’s not uncommon to see the defence facing down an attack with none of the frontmen anywhere to be seen.
Even if United’s frontmen have done their job and shepherded the opposition wide, the defence is often still left without cover and can be overloaded if the opposition push enough men forward.
To be able to deal with this pressure, United’s defence needs to be top class, which, basically, they aren’t.
Luke Shaw and the outgoing Ashley Young both try hard, but have the same fundamental lack of defensive awareness or skills that were a problem last season. Local lad Brandon Williams has impressed in his opportunities so far but is still a teenager and plays like one, with a tendency to throw himself into rash tackles. Both Williams and Shaw are still young and likely to improve, but if the question is are they good enough right now to depend on them for clean sheets then the answer is no.
Victor Lindelof has come on leaps and bounds from the soft and unconfident centre-back seen under Mourinho. Before he would stick tight to opposition forwards, getting dragged out of position, only to find himself shrugged off easily. Now he doesn’t stick as tight, often waiting until a pass is played into a striker’s feet before nipping in to get to it first. He also seems to be better at using his body, pushing in ahead of strikers to put himself between man and ball, which was unthinkable for a player who looked far too physically weak to be a Premier League centre-back a year ago. Nevertheless, he remains poor in the air, directly responsible for conceding goals against Crystal Palace and Southampton.
Signed for a world record fee for a defender, Maguire was brought in to clear up these issues. A massive lump of a man, it would take a giant to beat him in the air, while he’s able to use his frame to simply block off the runs of smaller attackers. He’s also intelligent, taking up good positions to ensure he isn’t left exposed, and his organisational influence has seen him be made captain with the departure of Young.
Although a clear boost to United’s defence, Maguire’s weaknesses aren’t exactly secrets. Turning like a cruise liner and running like he’s had a long, difficult life, get Maguire going in one direction and there’s no chance of him catching up if you head in the other. He may accommodate for it with his positioning, but there are certain moments in football where you need to be able to shift across quickly to be in a position to act. Maguire simply isn’t physically capable of doing that.
Wan-Bissaka was another big money signing in the summer but has adjusted well to his new team. A good one-on-one defender, the 22 year-old can sometimes appear a bit relaxed when retreating back into position but his ability to sprint from a standing start and quick footwork make it extremely difficult for the opposition to take advantage of his dawdling. Unlike many defenders of his age, he doesn’t feel the need to go steaming into tackles, confident enough in his ability to sit off and let his opponent make the first move. With his quick feet, he can twist and turn in time with his opponent’s changes of direction, and even if they do manage to win a yard to send in a cross, he’s usually in a good position to stick out a leg and block it.
The few times he is beaten in one-on-ones are usually when he puts his weight on his front leg as if he’s readying himself to step in and make a tackle – he rarely does but it usually causes his opponent to try and bolt past him, forcing him into having to shift his body weight in the opposite direction. He’s often able to recover and get a tackle in, especially as he still faces his hips down the line, however there’s not really any benefit to doing this rather than just waiting, which would put him in a better position to win the ball.
The only really noticeable fault in his defensive game is his difficulty with reading the flight of crosses when he’s at the back post, being caught either under the ball or too far outside when it comes in.
Asked to cover the width of the pitch ahead of them, a lot is demanded of the two holding midfielders in front of the back four. As the centre-backs and the opposite full-back will stay central to defend against crosses when the ball goes wide, it’s left to the holding midfielders to protect the full-back moving out to the wing and ensure he doesn’t get isolated.
Much of this is simply blocking a path inside, so that the opponent can’t dribble or pass into the centre, but, as they also did under Mourinho, the holding midfielders will often drop into the backline to ensure that if the full-back is beaten, they are on hand to stop the attacker advancing further.
This essentially leaves one midfielder covering all that area on the edge of the box. Much of the defensive work here is done by a midfielder blocking the easy passes inside, but it is a massive risk if the opposition can get around that midfielder to exploit the open space inside.
Solskjaer’s choice of players to play these roles is a mixed bag. The two most natural defensive players are Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay. Matic simply isn’t mobile enough anymore to reliably cover the ground the system asks of him, so the task has usually fallen to the young Scot. Big and strong, McTominay can win tackles and aerial challenges, allowing the centre-backs behind him to stay in the backline rather than push up, and unlike Matic he is mobile enough to quickly move across to where he’s needed. More impressive for his age are his natural defensive instincts though – he positions himself well and will immediately drop back to cover if Lindelof or Maguire venture forward on the ball, although sometimes he’s slow to hurry back when the opposition are breaking forward.
The other options aren’t great defensively though. Paul Pogba is incredibly strong, able to shrug off opponents without even adjusting his body, making him capable of dominating tackles against the majority of the league, but to make a tackle you have to be in a position to do so. The Frenchman’s defensive positioning isn’t great and he makes no effort to track runners or run back, leaving a ton of extra work for whoever has the misfortune of being partnered with him. He hasn’t featured for most of the season due to injury, yet everything he was criticised for under Mourinho remains a problem and he doesn’t seem to be bothered about improving it.
Fred also has his positional foibles, however unlike Pogba he works hard to make up for them. If the opposition sneak a pass in behind him, he will sprint back in an attempt to recover, showing great energy, mobility and decent strength in the tackle. He may not be perfect, yet he is at least shows great attitude that means he will surely improve the more gametime he is given.
Pereira has also often featured in the double pivot, yet, in much the same way the attacking midfield role isn’t ideal for him, he doesn’t really suit a protecting role. He tries hard but he is a more naturally creative player: not terrible at positioning himself, but making his fair share of errors, while also not likely to win too many challenges against anyone bigger than him. Pretty much everything that saw Mourinho drop him as a holding midfielder last season remains true.
Behind all of them, David De Gea is no longer the sole force keeping United in games, making an uncharacteristic string of mistakes that have given away costly goals.
Solskjaer’s tactics require a great defence capable of repelling attackers without the help of their forwards. They are only good though, not great, so it’s little surprise that United are sitting in fifth place rather than first.
Their defence isn’t the only problem though. Their pacey technical forwards are great at running in behind opposition defences, however United’s attack tends to come unstuck when they come up against teams that sit deeper and deny them that space to run into. Their attack is great at breakneck speed, yet they look devoid of imagination when they are forced into going slower.
Part of this problem comes from deeper. Both Lindelof and Maguire are comfortable picking out passes or carrying the ball up the pitch however early on in the season they tended to stay quite narrow. This put them in an excellent position to defend if they gave the ball away, not leaving a massive gap between them for a striker to run straight through, which was particularly important when taking Maguire’s lack of mobility into account.
While it made it easier to defend in transition, it also made it difficult for the centre-backs to find a good angle to pass into midfield, with the opposition strikers finding it easy to cut off the straight lines between them and the holding midfielders. With no open passes through the centre, the centre-backs are usually forced into passing wide, where the opposition can trap United against the touchline just like United try to do to them.
United’s midfielders would semi-regularly try to remedy this by dropping back into defence, allowing the centre-backs to spread wider, but by removing themselves from the midfield to do this they lessen the number of options in midfield to receive the pass out.
United have improved this aspect of their build-up recently though. They have done so by having the full-back on the opposite side to where the ball is tuck in, forming a makeshift back three. This allows Lindelof and Maguire to move wider, nearer the touchline, safe in the knowledge that the centre is secure.
With the full-back nearest the ball pushing on down the flank and the winger tucking inside to make room for him, the centre-backs tend to have better passing options. Either the opposition winger stays inside to block the forward pass into the winger, leaving the full-back free on the flank, or he pushes wide to get tight to the full-back, leaving an open pass into the winger’s feet. With three defenders usually outnumbering the opposition forwards, it’s also easier for them to pass into the midfielders.
Although this has improved United’s build-up, fundamental issues remain. They have a tendency to get trapped against the flanks easily, with the midfielders passing to the near-side full-backs rather than thinking about switching play out to the opposite side where there is more space.
Although this is a team-wide problem, certain individuals don’t help matters either. Fred has a tendency to get too close to his partner in midfield, essentially cutting off the space they have to work in and making one of them redundant as a passing option.
Whereas Maguire, perhaps worried about getting caught out of position if United give the ball away, will often get into positions that make it difficult for him to receive the ball or, worse, cut out a pass into his teammate.
While Maguire and Lindelof are both very good at picking out passes and carrying the ball forward and Pogba’s range of passing is what makes tolerating his complete lack of defensive effort worthwhile – all three starting the counter-attacks – some of their teammates can be found a bit lacking.
Shaw and Williamson both look like decent if not great crossers of the ball and are happy venturing forward, however Wan-Bissaka, albeit excellent defensively, doesn’t offer much going forward. His touch is rarely out of his feet, instead keeping the ball under him, and while this means he is able to protect the ball well, using his footwork to twist and turn on top of it when holding off a defender, it also means he either needs to take a touch to get it out of his feet, allowing defenders the time to get closer to him, or to hit the ball from under him awkwardly – hardly the best technique to be whipping in a dangerous cross or pass.
While happy to venture forward when there’s space to run into, McTominay is a conservative passer, preferring to stab short lateral passes into the feet of his teammates and only really going longer with sideways passes out to the flanks.
Pereira and Fred are both decent passers of the ball and seem to have a decent eye for releasing a teammate, but they struggle to manage really difficult passes like Pogba can pull off, meaning United end up making little progress in midfield as they pass from side-to-side.
It’s rare that more than one of the full-backs or holding midfielders will venture forward at a time, with the other three staying back to shield the deeper centre-backs. As the forwards don’t track back far, United can’t risk pushing too many men forward and risk getting caught out on the counter, limiting the number of men that can get involved in attacks.
This poses a major problem for United as their attackers aren’t very good at breaking down packed defences. They offer little movement in attack, spending most of their time lined up along the opposition defensive line, making it extremely difficult to get the ball to them.
When Lingard or Pereira are playing as attacking midfielders, they will drop back to provide a passing option through the middle but even if they receive the ball, there generally isn’t much movement around them to keep it moving forward. The United attackers will line up to run in behind the opposition defence, but if that option isn’t there, they don’t offer much of an alternative.
The sole exception is Martial. The number nine will drop off to receive the ball and constantly move around to maintain a passing angle into his feet from deep. He can hold the ball up with his back to goal and play in his teammates – often the only way United can break down defences. It was him receiving the ball and laying it off for a run from midfield that won penalties against Wolves and Crystal Palace. Without him, United generally look completely devoid of ideas.
In the absence of Martial, Solskjaer introduced a back three against Liverpool. Setting up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, the extra man was presumably to offer greater cover in defence, however Solskjaer continued with the back three for a stretch of games against weaker sides, although more often as a 3-4-3 shape.
The defensive benefit is obvious. Solskjaer took out an attacker and added an extra man to the backline. This offered greater defensive width so that the holding midfielders didn’t have to drop back into the backline as often, allowing them to stay central and protect the area around the edge of the box.
This also helped with their build-up though, allowing the centre-backs to stretch wider in possession and find better angles into midfield. The lack of movement in attack still didn’t help though.
Solskjaer reverted back to his 4-2-3-1 eventually. While the extra man in defence obviously strengthened United defensively, having one less man in attack weakened them just as obviously offensively. When your gameplan revolves around getting lots of men running very fast at the opposition backline, having one less man available to do that isn’t ideal.
This set up also asked more of the wing-backs going forward. Shaw and Williams both look capable of bombing down the flank but it doesn’t play to Wan-Bissaka’s strengths.
After enduring a shocking start to the season, United have improved enough to be sitting in the Europa League places. Nowhere near their biggest rivals though, whether this progress is coming quick enough is increasingly becoming a pressing issue for United’s restless fanbase and Solskjaer’s future doesn’t presently look too different from his predecessor’s.
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