Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Man Utd: Entertaining, Exciting but Defensively Flawed

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2019

Manchester United's  Norwegian caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gestures to the crowd at the end of the English FA Cup third round football match between Manchester United and Reading at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on January 5, 2019. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. /         (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Bleacher Report

Five games, five wins. It's been a perfect start for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager for Manchester United—but then, that perfect start was the minimum expected.

Jose Mourinho's sacking seemed to be timed specifically; coming following the loss at Anfield, it gave the new man four winnable Premier League fixtures followed by an FA Cup third-round tie. Reading were the opponents in the cup, making it five games a club such as United should win regardless of who is at the helm.

One might even argue a Mourinho-led team would have won all five.

The easy nature of that run—Cardiff City (17th), Huddersfield Town (20th), Bournemouth (12th), Newcastle United (15th) and Reading (Championship)—has placed a caveat in people's minds when assessing how good United are under Solskjaer.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02:  Marcus Rashford of Manchester United celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St. James Park on January 2, 2019 in Newcastle upon
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Fans of the club may point to the more expansive, entertaining, flowing football Solskjaer has coaxed out of this group, returning a truckload of goals. But others will continually point to that fixture list, asking for a statement performance against a big team that proves United are worth taking seriously.

On Sunday, that fixture—that chance—takes place.

Manchester United travel to Wembley Stadium to play Tottenham Hotspur, the de facto third-best team in the Premier League. They are in phenomenal form, having won five of their past six games and scoring 23 goals in the process. Their most recent result was a 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg.

They will provide the examination of Solskjaer's men everyone has been waiting for—both from an offensive and defensive perspective. It will answer the questions we have of the rearguard while putting an undoubtedly impressive forward corps to the test.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: Paul Pogba of Manchester United celebrates as he scores his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and AFC Bournemouth at Old Trafford on December 30, 2018 in Manchester, United King
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Under Solskjaer, United have overwhelmed lesser opponents from an attacking perspective. The Norwegian has, quite simply, let the talented players he's in charge of off the leash, allowing them to interchange, roam and combine in a way they feel comfortable.

"You don't, in one week, change anything, but you change the mindset," Solskjaer told the media after the win over Huddersfield. "I want my team to play in a certain way."

This manifested itself most obviously in Anthony Martial's goal against Cardiff City, when he, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard combined to magnificent effect, exchanging passes and ripping through the Bluebirds lines. That it came in Solskjaer's first game felt like a signal: Things are different now.

There's a more obvious onus on being the dominant force in games, with the shape allowing the team to be more positive and enterprising in possession. Based in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape, the full-backs are playing higher and wider, the wingers are free to drift and Pogba has licence to drop into pockets on the left side to conduct buildup play.

Once the ball progresses into the final third, the front three vary their movements and respond to the others' intents, creating slick and deadly passages. It's all United fans wanted to see from a group that contains Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Lingard, Martial and Pogba.

The flip side to this is that heavy rotation of movement in attack, in addition to an uncoordinated press or counter-press, destabilises a team defensively. We've seen the fruits of United's free-form attacking labour, but we've consequently also seen the problems that arise from it.

Solskjaer achieved his first clean sheet at the fourth attempt—against Newcastle—and was pretty fortunate to do so. United bled chances in all of the first four games, with their transition from Mourinho-led low-block defending to Solskjaer's press and counter-press strategy showcasing the same early wobbles that Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea did (remember the Community Shield?).

Credit: Sky Sports

For example, against Newcastle, the midfield pivot continually pushed upfield to counter-press with the forward line while the defensive line dropped off, creating big gaps for Newcastle's midfielders to receive chipped passes into. The forwards and midfielders are doing what Solskjaer wants; the defenders are doing what Mourinho drilled into them over the course of two-and-a-half years.

The full-backs are pushed touchline wide and high up to create width and angles for the passing game, but if caught that way on turnovers, they're leaving huge gaps to exploit. The midfield is not yet covering or smothering well enough to prevent teams taking advantage.

It places a lot of strain on the defensive line, leading to occasional recklessness and desperation. Even at 4-1 up against Bournemouth, a comfortable scoreline, Eric Bailly felt the need to lunge in high up and consequently saw red. It was silly, but he was essentially put in a dodgy position one too many times.

With a lesser degree of quality at play, it echoes of Zinedine Zidane's unbalanced but powerful Real Madrid side.

Teams that target these spaces in transition attacks stand to gain a lot of joy out of this United setup. That's been clear throughout this winning streak. It's just the teams the Red Devils have played haven't been able to take advantage.

Credit: Sky Sports

Tottenham, though, with their attacking riches and elite forward options, seem perfectly poised to do just that. The passing ability of Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, mixed with the intelligent movements and runs of Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son, spell out a potential nightmare for United.

Think Eriksen's goal against Cardiff or Alli's strike against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup. Kane will frequently drop between the lines to receive the ball, turn and then feed it over the top or into a channel for his runners. If United don't have a cohesive, coordinated way of dealing with this, they are in trouble.

It's the first big test of Solskjaer's credentials. He's been clear that his leading the club out of its Mourinho-inspired decline is a gradual process, but for success to come on Sunday, preparations in training will have to have been on turbocharge.

If United head into the contest at Wembley doing the same thing they have done during Solskjaer's time in charge, they will need to score, score and score some more to win, because there's little chance Spurs will be kept at bay.

                 

Instagram.com/brsamtighe

All statistics via WhoScored.com.

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