One of the criticisms laid at Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s door since he took the reins at Old Trafford has been his lack of tactical experience and/or adaptability.
And whilst United’s limp end to last season and poor start to this one is clearly, at least in part, down to a lack of squad depth coupled with individual defensive errors, there is arguably a tactical element that is hindering the side’s progress.
Solskjaer’s tenure at United shows a distinct pattern of bursts of success. In the Premier League in 2018/19, the Norwegian started with 12 matches unbeaten, then went on a bad patch of 2 wins from 9. In 2019/20, United started badly, with 3 wins from 11 then went 6 undefeated. Then there was another bad patch, with 4 losses in the next 7 games, before finishing the season with a 14 game unbeaten run.
There are three possible reasons for this pattern. One is that lack of squad depth, which throws the team into disarray when key first team players are unavailable. Another is that too many key players are inconsistent. Rashford, Martial and Pogba are all world class on their day, but that fine tuning where all three are firing at once is difficult to achieve, and then to sustain.
But arguably the most basic explanation for the patchy pattern is that Solskjaer comes up with a game plan that works, but eventually it gets sussed out by United’s opponents and he is too slow to adapt and change things up. In other words, United become predictable very quickly.
During lockdown there was a great deal of speculation about how Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba could be accommodated in the same team. Solskjaer’s solution was to push Pogba into a deeper role, generally occupying the right central defensive midfielder position. This provided some creativity from deeper and freed up Bruno to be the extra man in attack and worked well.
But within a few games it started to lose its power and against Crystal Palace it was badly exposed. Wily opposition managers such as Roy Hodgson have sussed out that with Pogba back there, Marcus Rashford becomes much easier to mark and the threat from United’s left wing can be nullified. Marking out Rashford also leaves Anthony Martial with only Bruno to feed off and both of them trying to do too much on their own.
The arrival of Donny van de Beek should enable Solskjaer to try some new formations without sacrificing the talent level on the pitch. A 4-4-2 diamond, for example, would allow Pogba to push forward-left again and be more involved in the final third. Of course, such a formation requires the full-backs to provide the attacking width, which is not Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s strength. But the benefits of putting Pogba back in his natural position, Rashford closer to goal, the injection of Van de Beek’s energy and creativity in the centre of the park and, most importantly, introducing more fluidity and unpredictability, should outweigh the full-backs’ limitations.
Solskjaer needs to demonstrate that he can easily and smoothly slip his side into two or three different formations as needs dictate. The team will only be able to come to do this naturally if he has the courage to try the formations when it matters – on matchday, not just on the training ground. Without this ability, United will always be a side whose tactics become too predictable and too easy to counteract.
Today’s game is a perfect opportunity to make such tactical changes. Brighton have won their last three games without conceding a goal and one of their start performers has been right-back Tariq Lamptey, who Solskjaer could deal with in two ways: revert to a 3-5-2 to provide an extra layer of defence against the extra man, or employ an ‘attack is the best form of defence’ approach by trying that 4-4-2 diamond, hoping to keep Brighton on the back foot and Lamptey subdued.
It will be interesting to see what the manager decides to do as he chases his first Premier League points of the new campaign.
Manchester United’s new star Donny van de Beek is the 13th Dutch national to play for the senior side. But how much do you know about the other 12? Take our quiz below to find out.