On the 28th of March 2019, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed the permanent manager of Manchester United. This was after a three-month period in which he oversaw the club temporarily after the club sacked José Mourinho. During this time as caretaker manager, United went on an unbelievable run, winning 14 games including what can only be described as a special night in Paris. It was undeniable that the Norwegian deserved to have a chance at bringing United back to being successful. The question remained whether he had the management knowledge to go through such a significant rebuild that Manchester United was crying out for to get back to the top of English football.
One of the most significant aspects of United’s play that Solskjær has significantly improved since last season is the defensive organisation. Last season they conceded 54 goals in the whole season which made them the 10th in the Premier League for goals conceded. Simply put they were a disgrace at times when trying to defend and they did not apply basic patterns of defensive play that would prevent them conceding goals. This season, however, they have conceded 30 goals thus far which puts them 3rd in the table for least goals conceded, only behind Liverpool and Sheffield United. This is, therefore, a remarkable turnaround and it highlights the excellent job Solskjær has done in stopping them conceding goals.
The real problem when Solskjær got the job permanently was most certainly the organisation of the defensive line. Different systems were being tested and the United defenders were being asked to play a completely different style as opposed to the previous regime. This simply meant that for the last few months of the 2018/2019 season they were all over the place and things needed changing.
Below is an example of the defensive organisation United lacked, in a 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester City. We can see the three United defenders all over the place, lacking any form of organisation. City are able to cut through them and score a second. The likes of Chris Smalling are no longer a part of the first team and games like this were a big indicator as to why. United’s shape was really poor and they would lose games because of this. When analysing the changes Solskjær has made, it is important to see how bad it was before tweaks and tactical transitions were found.
In sharp comparison to last seasons woeful defensive organisation, this year United have seen a massive improvement in this regard and are conceding far fewer goals as opposed to when Solskjær first got the permanent job. This can be attributed to two main things. The first would be that Solskjær and his coaching staff have worked significantly on United’s defensive structure behind the scenes. He believes that this has been a problem since Sir Alex retired and getting the defence right has been a significant objective.
The second reason as to why the defensive structure has improved is the acquisitions of both Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Both have really impressed since signing from Leicester City and Crystal Palace respectively and are essential for United in terms of keeping goals out. Despite them both having disappointing moments, the same can be said about the United defence at times, they have overall improved the team significantly and have given the team an excellent foundation to build on.
Below is an example of the excellent defensive structure in place. As opposed to the previous image where United lost 2-0 to City at Old Trafford, in this game they were 2-0 victors and the win was mainly down to them being extremely solid at the back. We can see the defensive line in an excellent position and not allowing City any space to play through. The remarkable point to be highlighted about these two images is the contrasting nature of United’s organisation. In the recent image we can see them more organised, in shape and confident about not conceding a goal. The previous image resembles a naivety and lack of confidence which allowed City to score. This highlights the change that Solskjær has implemented.
The way in which United finished the 2018/2019 season was quite remarkable in the worst way when looking at how they defended. During Solskjær’s tenure as caretaker boss they showed signs of real defensive solidity. The two results that come to mind that highlight this are the 1-0 away win at Tottenham Hotspur and the incredible 3-1 away win in Paris against PSG. However, as soon as Solskjær got the job on a full-time basis they seemed to crumble and not know how to defend at all. This could be attributed to fatigue, and an inability to deal with the physical requirements that Solskjær’s pressing and high line was having. However, this is too easy of an excuse for the United players to get away with, as they were simply a joke. The worst defeat and the defeat that was potentially the most embarrassing as a United fan was the 4-0 thrashing at Everton. This game potentially is the best example of how bad United’s defensive structure was.
Below is an example from that game and more specifically, the build-up to Everton’s second goal. Similarly to the 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the same season, we can see the defensive line also in a mess. The back four on the day were unaware on how to deal with Everton’s rapid frontline. The score could have been much worse, and it really highlighted United’s defensive structure. Since this game, many of the players are no longer at the club or in the first team. As has been mentioned a lot during this piece, organisation is so key to any successful defence and United were really lacking this before Solskjær made some key summer changes.
It could also be said of Manchester United towards the back end of the 2018/2019 season that they were not very good at defending as a team. This also refers to the fact that they were not strong in pressing and winning the ball back higher up the pitch. However, the key once again to their defensive improvement has to be attributed to both Maguire and Wan-Bissaka. They are both excellent defenders and were exactly what Manchester United were lacking. Wan-Bissaka is one of the best one vs one defenders in the world at this moment. His ability to tackle and win the ball back is quite simply out of this world. Harry Maguire is also very strong at defending. His aerial presence and his ability to come out with the ball have helped United both in defensive and attacking play. They have saved United many points this season just by being in the right place at the right time. Despite them costing a combined 130 million pounds, it can be critically argued that United are a much stronger team with both players in the team.
Below is the game against Everton this season. United showed a really tough side in this game and showed great character to defend strongly and keep out Everton for most of the game. The goal Everton scored was a David De Gea disaster, and the United defence in this game was very good. We can see the United defence highlighted in the image. They are together, ordered and Everton cannot get through them. By looking at the contrast between this fixture last season and this season we can see the key changes that Solskjær has made to United’s defensive setup. Moving forward, if they can maintain this they are likely to be able to pick up more wins even when they are not at their absolute best.
The defensive side of the game is, of course, vital for success, however, the key for any Manchester United team is the way they go forward and score goals. Solskjær has turned Manchester United into a team that enjoys breaking in fast transitions and they are turning into an excellent counter-attacking team. When we look at United this season, it is often the case that they line up in a 4-2-3-1. There are times when they go to a back five, especially in the bigger games, however, the main formation is 4-2-3-1. This means that there is a front four going forward when United look to counter-attack. This is something that started in the opening game against Chelsea and has continued until today. United often break with pace and attacking power which has allowed them to score a strong number of goals. They have scored 44 goals this season alone, and they were well on their way to beating last seasons total of 65. This highlights that this counter-attacking play is working and the players they have in attacking areas suit this system.
Below is an example of United breaking at pace in their 3-1 victory away at Norwich City. Notice how narrow the front four players are when they break forward. This is so that one-two football can be played and they can hurt defences with their technical quality. The likes of Mason Greenwood and Daniel James benefit from this as they can attack spaces with pace and skill which allow United to get goals. Solskjær is developing this attacking system and with a few additions, they could be onto something special.
As mentioned, when United play against teams that are not of the same quality as those near the top of the table, they will often counter-attack using the front four players closer together. This creates space in wider areas for the full-backs and the wingers if they choose to go out wider. This, therefore, is flexible, and Solskjær should be credited for the way he has developed this team into attacking in this way. Counter-attacking is hard to perfect, but with the right players added to this Manchester United side, they could find the perfect balance and develop into a world-class counter-attacking side. At times what holds them back from scoring more goals is the decision making of certain players. Jessie Lingard and Andreas Pereira have often been disappointing in the final third, with passes being misplaced and often leading to a lack of creativity. Bruno Fernandes since coming in has bucked this trend and shown real signs of creative genius. Therefore, finding this balance with the right players in the right positions could move United forward as an attacking force.
Below is an example of United counter-attacking at pace against Watford at Old Trafford. This goal was all about Mason Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes who linked up amazingly to find the back of the net. Once again, notice how narrow the attacking players are. This is to allow the attacking play to flourish and allow link-up play to occur more regularly. This works extremely well against the teams that sit deeper. It means that the opposing defence is unable to cope with four players running at them with pace. As mentioned, as soon as the decision making gets better United will be scoring goals at a much higher rate.
The big games often see a tweak in the way United counter-attack. As opposed to being narrow they will play the wider players a lot more on the outside to break at pace through the flanks. This was highlighted significantly against Manchester City, whereby United was able to batter them throughout the first half using the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James. These three were key in this victory and they once again highlight the potential United have to be an excellent counter-attacking team. We can see below an image from the game itself. It is noticeable that they find themselves in a situation whereby they can break against City’s poor defensive line. This is due to the structure of the team, which almost allows the front four to stay forward and move forward on the break. This is slightly different from what we saw earlier with the attacking players being narrow. It shows that Solskjær has a flexible mind when it comes to attacking.
Breaking down teams
In similar fashion to United’s defensive structure, their ability and attempts to break teams down that come up against them with a rigid defensive formation have also been tweaked. When Solskjær took over as permanent boss, United didn’t really seem to have much of an attacking structure of breaking teams down. As discussed earlier, the system of counter-attacking with the front four has only recently been developed and it still needs tweaking in order for it to be a success. Against teams that sit deep behind the ball, counter-attacking is often very hard to do given the lack of space. This is something United really struggled with last season and to a certain extent have done this season also. At times it seemed as if they did not know what to do when they got the ball in attacking situations. This again could be explained as them adapting to the new system that Solskjær was trying to implement in comparison to previous managers. It was clear they were struggling to find a system that suited them at the back end of last season.
Below is an example of this confusion. This was taken against Cardiff where United lost 0-2. We can see Pereira on the ball in the attacking half of the pitch. In front of him there are a lot of players, however, they are in positions whereby they cannot be found with a pass. This would mean that the ball has to go sideways or backwards, which slows down the build-up play that United are trying to achieve. This has been a big problem for United and one that they have been attempting to change for some time.
The importance of looking at United struggling when it came to breaking teams down is to also look at how they have changed this. The solution that has recently come into force is Bruno Fernandes. He has been vital to United’s build-up play since his arrival in Manchester. The way United attempt to play now is primarily through him and his excellent technical ability. He can find a pass, get into good spaces and be the midfield general United have been missing for so long. Since his arrival in January United have been able to break teams such as Watford down with a lot more fluidity. In the bigger games against Manchester City and Chelsea, he has also added a real attacking dimension to United’s play. They are always on the front foot when he is in the team and they look more likely to score. He has owned the attacking midfield position, and in comparison to the struggles they have faced in terms of breaking teams down he makes it a lot easier to get goals.
Below is an example of his creative flair. We can see here him finding an excellent pass into Juan Mata who is able to score a goal. In comparison to the image we saw earlier of the United players all bunched around each other and not really having an idea of what to do, we can see that he brings an element of calm and composure that United’s attacking play has often missed. This is something Solskjær must take huge credit for, as he seems to have found an excellent solution to the problems United have had breaking teams down.
To conclude, Solskjær’s first year as permanent boss at Manchester United has been one of many lessons. It is clear to see that he has learnt a lot about management and United are slowly getting back to being worthy of a Manchester United team. This has not been easy and there have been many dark days for the United faithful. However, all these defeats have served well for Solskjær as he has learned key lessons and developed his United squad to not go through similar pains. The younger players have brought a freshness around Old Trafford and this coupled with some pretty successful signings has brought renewed optimism around the place. The likes of Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish have been linked with United as of late. Bringing in these young, hungry, talented players would really boost United to the next level and they would have a squad all aligned with the same vision of Solskjær. The signs look good for United, however, we have seen before how things can change at Old Trafford for the worst, so Solskjær will need to be wary of this.