Manchester United’s 2-0 win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last night and the team’s heroic performance makes it difficult to criticise manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In fact, the Red Devils have done the Premiership double over their London rivals with a whopping 6-0 aggregate score.
Yet despite the injuries to Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, you still feel that the manager could have fielded a stronger side against Frank Lampard’s men and that an old habit made famous by former manager Louis Van Gaal has crept back in – playing players out of position.
First and foremost we have 5ft 11inch Luke Shaw playing as a centre back in a back three. This was the second time that Solskjaer has chosen to do this in recent games, having also done so in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Man City. Two games and two clean sheets seem to vindicate the Norwegian’s decision, but in reality were these two great defensive performances?
Against City, David de Gea had to rescue his defence on numerous occasions in a vintage man-of-the-match performance. In addition, City had two goals disallowed for offside and a controversial penalty appeal turned down in the first half.
Simply put, on another day City could have scored three or four.
And at Stamford Bridge last night, a heroic performance from Eric Bailly, woeful finishing from Michy Batshuayi and two disallowed Chelsea goals were much more important contributors to the Reds’ clean sheet than was the dodgy formation.
It’s not that Shaw played badly in either game – he actually acquitted himself quite well, especially against Chelsea – but he is simply not a centre back. The situation needs to be resolved before United’s defensive luck runs out.
The three at the back tactic also has the effect of pushing Brandon Williams into a wing back role. The 19-year-old had been excelling at left back this season – indeed, he was arguably the brightest light of a dismal campaign up until Christmas – but he looks out of his depth as a wing back. Often bullied off the ball by Chelsea’s marauding midfield and with only one shot on goal and one key pass from a total of 69 touches, Williams seemed to find himself in no man’s land far too often.
Changing position is a lot to ask an experienced senior player and it is perhaps unfair of Solskjaer to have interrupted Williams’ progress in this way. The manager has thereby placed a huge burden on the young man’s shoulders.
Two players who should have been hugging the touchline, on the other hand, were Anthony Martial and Dan James. Despite his goal, Martial has struggled consistently at centre forward and needs to be moved back out to the left wing. And whilst you can argue that it’s a case of needs must where the Frenchman is concerned, in James’ case it makes no sense at all. Frankly it beggars belief that a flying winger struggling for form and with few technical skills was chosen to play a striker’s role. If the manager was so desperate to play that formation, Mason Greenwood was a much more obvious choice, or alternatively Solskjaer could simply have opted for one up front.
James’ stats – just 22 touches, one key pass and not a single shot on goal – speak volumes about his performance but in his defence, you have to say that playing a young player out of position when he is already low in confidence is not the best way to get the most out of him.
It is of course understandable that Solskjaer has reverted to a more defensive back three formation to sure up a leaky defence. But the sacrifice in terms of positional adaptations is not likely to bring the best out of his players in the long run. And the key problem this season – defending set pieces – is not solved by deploying an extra (short) guy at centre back. It is about players knowing their responsibilities, sticking to their tasks and clearing their lines, irrespective of the formation.
Admittedly, at the end of the day, four consecutive clean sheets and three wins is compelling evidence that the boss knows what he’s doing. But you cannot help but wonder if it’s just a matter of time before the wheels come right back off this bus again.
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