Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man Utd: Entertaining, Exciting, but Defensively Flawed | Bleacher Report

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)

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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 very minimum expected.

The sacking of Jose Mourinho seemed timed quite specifically; with it coming following the loss at Anfield, it gave the new man four extremely winnable league fixtures followed by an FA Cup tie. Reading were drawn as the opponents, making it five games a club such as United really should claim victory—regardless of who is at the helm.

One might even argue Mourinho 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 are.

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

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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 in return, others will continually point to that fixture list, asking for a statement performance against a big team that proves United are worth taking seriously.

This weekend, that fixture—that chance—takes place.

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

They’ll provide the examination to Solskjaer’s men everyone’s been waiting for—both from an offensive and defensive perspective. It’ll answer the questions we have of the rearguard whilst 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

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Thus far 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 Independent. “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 now, 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 license to drop into pockets on the left side to conduct build-up play.

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

The flipside 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 also seen the problems that arise from it in turn.

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, 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 aren’t yet covering or smothering well enough to prevent teams taking advantage.

It places a lot of strain on the defensive line, leading to recklessness and desperation at times. Even at 4-1 up against Bournemouth, a comfortable scoreline, Eric Bailly felt the need to lunge in high up and see 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 who target these spaces in transition attacks stand to gain a lot of joy out of this current United setup. That’s been clear throughout this mini-streak of Ws, 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. The passing ability of Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, mixed with the intelligent movements and runs of Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min, 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, 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’re 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 this weekend, preparations in training this week will have to have been on turbocharge.

If United head into Sunday’s contest at Wembley doing the same thing they’ve done over the last three weeks, they’ll need to score, score and score some more to win, because there’s little chance Spurs are kept at bay.


All statistics via WhoScored.com.

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