There has been a lot of criticism of Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics over the last couple of weeks, a lot of criticism of Marcus Rashford and a lot of speculation about getting in a striker in the January window to replace Romelu Lukaku. There have also been suggestions that the board were hasty in sacking José Mourinho. So what I’m about to say may be hugely unpopular, but it needs to be said.
I am crying in tears of pain as I write this, but it needs to be said. The best football team in the world at this moment in time is almost certainly Liverpool FC. There, I said it.
What has that got to do with tactics, Rashford and replacing Lukaku, or with sacking Mourinho? Well, it’s about the modern game, and about the fact that what worked tactically even five or six years ago is no longer relevant today.
Man-for-man, Liverpool are way short of having the best eleven players in the world. What they have is one or two world class players and a winning formula, the right shape for 2019 and the right tactics. The key, I believe, is a fluid, fast and mobile front three, in Sala, Firmino and Mané – incredibly difficult to mark, almost impossible to contain when defending deep or to catch offside when pushing up. Manchester City, arguably the second best team in the world right now, have something similar in a rotating front three comprising the likes of Aguero, Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and, when fit, Leroy Sané. I would argue that City’s front three are slightly less fluid than that of Liverpool, with Aguero (or Jesus) generally “the front man”, but both are nonetheless not your typical, Lukaku-like centre forward – they are still part of a fluid front three, rather than your traditional target man.
This, for me, was Mourinho’s downfall at Manchester United. José was not a proponent of the fluid front three. He was old school. He brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Lukaku, tall, physically powerful target men who would form the focal point of Manchester United’s attacks. This set up is what brought Mourinho most of his success over the course of his career, with the likes of Didier Drogba and Diego Costa at Chelsea, Samuel Eto’o at Inter and Benzema at Real Madrid. The world’s best defences, even the Premier League’s best defences, have solved the riddle of how to defend against this approach. Football has evolved. The fluid front three is what will bring success these days.
Enter Olé Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer immediately changed Manchester United’s formation and tactics to implement the more modern fluid front three, with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard the trio chosen to play in these roles. As we all know, this brought initial, instant success in the run of 11 unbeaten games that led to Solskjaer’s permanent appointment. During that time, all three players interchanged, one popping up on the left, then the right, then down the middle, one dropping deep, then going forward. If you squinted you could almost see Salah and co. wearing the much cooler red of Manchester United.
The poor run of results that has happened since cannot, in my opinion, be laid at Solskjaer’s door. Lingard’s form has just consistently declined over that period until it has reached the point where Solskjaer has had little option other than to drop him. That coupled with the early season injury to Martial has been a huge blow, and the board’s failure to secure the Dybala – Lukaku swap deal has left the Norwegian with very few other options.
Where City have the six world class players I mentioned above available to fill those three positions, and Liverpool have been lucky in terms of injuries to their chosen three (imagine if, say, Mané’s form at Liverpool had declined as badly as Lingard’s and that Salah had picked up an injury that kept him out for two months), United have no backup, except for Dan James, who needs to learn this new role, and 17-year old Mason Greenwood, who Solskjaer does not want to over-expose too early and is trying to ease into the team over the course of the season.
What’s more, the lack of depth in these positions has meant that the loss of Martial and Lingard to injury and poor form, respectively, has forced Solskjaer into abandoning the fluid front three and playing Rashford as more of a centre forward – a role he is not cut out for, and which has then led to a dip in his form as well.
You could argue that, given the lack of options, United should not have allowed Lukaku to leave, but going back to the big target man approach is not the solution. Despite the crisis, Solskjaer is right to persist with the fluid front three. It seems likely that this type of forward player will be bought in January to swell the ranks. Current media speculation revolves around Lyon’s Moussa Dembélé, but he, again, is perhaps more of a target man. Expect instead another pacy, lively and creative forward who can play across the front three and who will fit into the fluid front three system.
Such a signing, coupled with a run of fitness for Martial and the ongoing development of James and Greenwood, will take the pressure off Rashford and allow him to recapture his best form.
Things might look dire now, but this is what Solskjaer is trying to build and it would be unbelievably self-destructive of the board to lose faith in that project now.