What a difference four days make. Just as recently as Tuesday, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or read a social media feed without seeing a photo of Mauricio Pochettino waiting in the wings as we counted the days before Manchester United manager Olé Gunnar Solskjaer would be sacked. The debate was not if, but when: would or should it be straight away, or at the end of the season?
Nobody expected what was going to happen next.
Back-to-back victories against top six rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City have stunned the football world and metamorphosed Solskjaer from an adored pet that needed to be put to sleep to a god who should be given the keys to Manchester. 20legend the player has become 20legend the coach.
In a way, though, we should not have been surprised at the events of the past week. United are unbeaten in seven games against rivals Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea this season and the Norwegian’s record against the top six sides since he took the helm in December 2018 has been incredible: played 13, won 7, drawn 4, lost 2. If you average that point haul over 38 games, it would be a 73 point season, which would have been enough for third place in the Premier League table in 2018/19. It is fair to say that Solskjaer has the top six sussed.
United’s problem under the Norwegian, however, is not the big games. It is the bread-and-butter games. And if you look at that 11-match unbeaten run he enjoyed when he took over from José Mourinho last season, there was a clue as to what the future would hold: the only dropped points of that run were in Solskjaer’s ninth game, at home to Burnley, in a 2-2 draw.
The Red Devils’ form against lower ranking teams under Solskjaer this season has been as dismal as the top six results have been incredible: played 10, won 2, drawn 4, lost 4. Again, averaging that point haul over 38 games would make it a 38 point season, which would have been enough for fifth from bottom of last season’s table and just five points clear of relegation.
Why are Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United so good against top six opposition and so poor against everyone else? There are two main theories: motivational and tactical.
The motivational theory is simple. Many fans believe that a lot of players in the first team squad are complacent, arrogant and lazy and take the ‘smaller’ games too lightly. The argument is that they simply ‘don’t turn up’ mentally. There may be some truth to this, but if so then Solskjaer needs to learn fast how to motivate his players and how to select a side that will be hungry enough to perform at its peak in this sort of game.
The tactical theory is that the Norwegian’s approach to every game is pretty much the same, which is to play counter-attacking football with a high press. In this tactic, when out of possession, the side will put pressure on the opponents everywhere on the pitch, starting with the forwards closing down the opposition defenders and blocking forward passes in order to force mistakes, turnovers and interceptions. This loss of possession then leads to a counter-attack by United’s pacy forward line that catches the opponents unprepared.
This tactic works well against more attack-minded sides looking for a win, who push forward to score and leave space at the back for United to exploit. Top six sides, for example. However, what happens against a team that is not so adventurous and employs the low block tactic, where they defend from a deep position in order to restrict the amount of space United have to exploit? Teams that are trying to avoid defeat against United will do this more often than not.
In tactical theory, the low block and the high press cancel each other out. United will have limited chances to counter-attack, so they have to find another way to get a goal – perhaps a touch of creative genius from midfield or the number 10 position that will open up the opposition’s defence. This is where the side could be said to be lacking right now, with Paul Pogba arguably the only player capable of producing that kind of creativity from that area of the pitch.
There are two things that the manager can do to resolve this issue. The first is to strengthen the squad with quality midfielders or a number 10 that can open up defences. This should be the priority in the January transfer window. The second is to change the formation against the lower-ranked teams, perhaps sacrificing a midfielder and switching to a 4-4-2 diamond, with an emphasis on wing play and crosses to get behind the deep-lying opposition defence. In fairness, Solksjaer may well have gone this route already had it not been for the injuries and lack of established first team players available to him for much of the season.
United’s next six games are against AZ Alkmaar, Everton, Colchester, Watford, Newcastle and Burnley. The pressure is off Solskjaer now, but if he does not resolve this issue and get good results against these teams, it will not be long before he is back in the crosshairs of the Olé Out brigade and we see Pochettino’s face again plastered all over our Twitter feeds.