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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been beaten and battered as Manchester United manager for the past two and a half seasons. But although Manchester United are nowhere near the level they were under Sir Alex Ferguson, Solskjaer has managed to get the Red Devils to play some fantastic football and achieve several impressive results over the past few years. The Red Devils currently sit second in the table, even after a horrendous start to the season that saw them all the way down in 15th just a few months ago. After fifteen Premier League matches, Manchester United have accumulated 30 points, only 3 less than Liverpool, and remain unbeaten in their last ten in the league. Although he looks destined for the sack in time, Solskjaer might be one of the most underrated managers in world football at the moment. Here is our Tactical Analysis of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United.
system of play: 4-2-3-1
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has hardly ever shifted away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation since securing the job. One of the main reasons for this is allowing Bruno Fernandes to play in his best position, while still providing room for two defensive midfielders to do a massive job defensively in behind. A 4-1-4-1 for example would not allow Bruno the same freedom to roam, and mean he has to do more shifting and sliding in defense. United has experimented on occasion with a 4-4-2 Diamond and 3-4-1-2, but even these formations are designed to accommodate the presence of the lone Portuguese attacking midfielder, who remains unchanged. But as good as Fernandes is, he is not the only Manchester United player.
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Despite Dean Henderson’s fantastic exploits last season for Sheffield United, Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea has remained Solskjaer’s first choice keeper. In the future, United can rest easy knowing they have a natural replacement in Henderson who may be able to fill the gap. In front of De Gea, the back-four has been relatively stable. Alex Telles has made a decent impression since arriving from FC Porto, and pushes Luke Shaw for a starting birth on a game by game basis. The other three in the back-four are however, undeniable regulars. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof have started thirteen of the fifteen league games so far, whilst Harry Maguire is the only United player not to miss a single minute of action so far. Maguire had a particularly rough start to the season when United struggled to pick up wins. He was even torn to pieces by Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane. But the United captain has since recovered form, ensuring the Red Devils’ most reliable defenders are not Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, which for all their talent, would be slightly sad. For all Maguire’s faults at the start of the season, it’s undeniable that few defenders in the league are as capable on the ball and in the air as the now 27-year old. With Maguire leading the back-line, it’s a far cry from Neville-Ferdinand-Vidic-Evra, but it’s still a back-four more than capable of challenging for the top four.
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Solskjaer has almost stumbled upon the realization that his best midfield duo is the surprise partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay. McTominay has hardly had a bad game since making his debut in the Mourinho days, but until about this time last season it could be argued Fred looked like a below average Championship level player. Now, he’s almost surpassed McTominay as a player Solsjaker can’t seem to leave out. That’s exactly because of his role in front of the back-four as their less luxurious Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. He happens to be the most defensively minded midfielder at the club, and the top tackler in the whole side other than Wan-Bissaka. Scott McTominay on the other hand is a box-to-box midfielder, incredibly adept on and off the ball, without being much of a dictator of the play. That job falls to the one and only Bruno Fernandes, who has been practically undeniably, the best player in the league this year. The Portuguese midfielder has scored or assisted 17 of Manchester United’s 31 goals this season, with 10 goals and 7 assists. Only Harry Kane has more goals + assists this season in the league, with 19. What makes the 26-year old a much better player than someone like Paul Pogba though, is his incredible defensive work-rate out of possession. Bruno’s made nearly 3 tackles + interceptions per game, and is so key for United in transition, often sprinting all the way back to help his teammates when they’re in trouble. His defensive numbers are better than both Luke Shaw and Alex Telles. Yikes.
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But Bruno is not the only creative force for United in attack. Marcus Rashford has had a wonderful 2020, and this season he’s chipped in with 7 goals and 4 assists. Fernandes has assisted Rashford four times this season, the joint-second best in the league tied with Son assisting Kane; but far behind Kane assisting Son. This makes Bruno and Rashford one of the deadliest duos in the league. But it also makes United heavily reliant on their top two front-men to bang in the goals. If they weren’t in such stellar form, Solskjaer’s side would be in serious trouble. Edinson Cavani’s fared decently well, especially off the bench, scoring 3 goals with 2 assists in his 9 appearances (in only 300 minutes of action). Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial have performed well, but haven’t come up with quite as good attacking numbers. Between the two of them, they’ve matched Cavani’s numbers (inversely) with 2 goals and 3 assists in their combined 21 appearances. All 3 of those assists have come from Anthony Martial. Due to the Frenchman’s struggles in front of goal this season, United may look to Cavani more and more as the season goes on as their first choice number 9, as Martial shifts to the middle and Greenwood bides his time from the bench. A front-four of Rashford-Bruno Fernandes-Martial-Cavani should be enough to make any team quiver in their boots, but it’s unclear if Solskjaer wants to put that plan into action and rely on a 33-year-old striker each and every week. It would also potentially cause an overhaul to their reliance on the left-side, changing several of the methods that have contributed to their success.
Looking deeper into the squad, United’s squad rotation has meant that twenty-four of their twenty-five registered Premier League players have made appearances this season. Twenty-two different players have started matches. Of those to make more than 5 appearances, Daniel James, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Donny Van de Beek have all offered United a fine service when called upon. The Red Devils do of course still have the undoubtedly talented Paul Pogba, but it’s unclear whether that will be until the end of the season or not. Now let’s get more into the specifics of Manchester United’s tactics this season under Ole Gunnar Solsjaker.
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One of the prominent features of Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s Manchester United has been his reliance on counter attacking football. It’s not as though United were never a counter-attacking side under previous managers. Some of their greatest goals in the Sir Alex Ferguson era were scored on the counter attack. But the manner at which they counter attack has changed, as has their inceasing reliance on it as a method of scoring goals. This was a noticeable approach even in Solsjaker’s first matches in charge back at the end of 2018 and early 2019. But with the addition of Bruno Fernandes, who happens to be excellent both in defensive and attacking transitions, United look even more of a counter-attacking side. It’s reasonable to say that the Red Devils have fared better this season when coming up against opponents where they spend long periods of time without the ball, than the opposite. For example, they struggled horrendously against Crystal Palace, where they had a whopping 76% of the possession. They’ve been better against the likes of Leeds, where the exact opposite was true. In their 6-2 win against Bielsa’s team, United had just 42% of the possession, and scored some of their goals within a few seconds of winning the ball back. In WhoScored?‘s classification of “counter attacking goals”, which span fewer seconds than most people would quantify a counter attacking goal to be, United lead the league. They’ve scored 5 pure counter attacking goals, without conceding a single one that’s been classified in that manner.
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Solskjaer’s counter attacking approach has two necessary predecessors: 1) their reliance on the left side; and 2) their high pressing system. We will discuss their high press later on, but it’s important to note here that it has directly contributed to several counter attacking goals. Their approach is also heavily favoured to the left side, where both Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford are more likely to roam. Luke Shaw and Alex Telles are also more adventurous going forward than Aaron-Wan Bissaka on the other side, aiding in their left-side dominance. Only Palace have favoured the left side more, 46% to United’s 44% of attacks. That said, United still take one of the most vertical approaches in their attack to most, slightly due to Fernandes and this counter attacking approach. No side in the league has attacked down the right side less than United (30%), potentially providing some justification for Mason Greenwood’s lack of goals and assists. This is all to say that in their press and subsequent counter attacks, United favour their left side to extreme heights.
Further, United attempt the lowest number of crosses and long balls per game in the league, and the joint highest number of through balls per game. Crosses are rarely used in counter-attacking situations, due to the verticality required in attacking transitions and the general areas of the pitch in which teams lose possession of the ball. Long balls also don’t happen much in attacking transitions, with teams instead relying on quick bursts of speed running with the ball for longer periods of time and short, quick passes that are unlikely to be intercepted. Further, through balls are far more likely to be used in counter attacking situations than long spells of possession, where the opposition have time to adjust their position and set up their block. All of this provides evidence for both United being good in transition and using this as a method to score goals, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how United counter attack.
After winning possession, often through traps on the left side, United utilize a powerful runner of the ball like Rashford, Martial or Fernandes to carry the ball forward at speed. If the ball is won far to the left side, this run will often be toward the middle, rather than down the wing. Again, United are rarely looking to deliver crosses in comparison to other Premier League sides. Other players will then make surging runs forward off the ball, in a vertical manner, as United look for gaps in behind the back-four to exploit. Although Martial, Greenwood and Rashford are all lightning quick, Manchester United perhaps have the most options for their counter attacks when Bruno Fernandes is on the ball. This allows Rashford, Martial and Greenwood/James to make runs in behind, potentially dragging defenders with them. Then the Portuguese midfielder is afforded more space to shoot, and/or drags the opposition defensive midfielder with him out of position. With the defensive midfielder dragged to their right and United’s left, that leaves space for someone like McTominay or Pogba to advance into. Bruno can then lay it off to that central midfielder, look for a through-ball in behind the opposition defense, or if he has space, shoot. This is exactly how United punished Bielsa’s Leeds time and time again this December.
With Leeds United playing a 4-1-4-1 formation, Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo were caught too far forward. This left room for Scott McTominay to roam forward and exploit. The Scottish midfielder is not a deadly goal-scorer by any means, but he scored 2 goals in 3 minutes for United due to Fernandes dragging Kalvin Phillips out of position, Scott McTominay exploiting that space, and then finishing it off. This was a particular problem on the second goal, as Bruno Fernandes wasn’t even the man to assist McTominay. Bruno’s position in this case was so far to the left, that Phillips, who had evidently been told to man-mark the Portuguese midfielder, was completely out of the picture. This afforded Anthony Martial more room to lay it off, dragging the centre-backs with him in the process, and McTominay more room to exploit in behind.
On the first goal, this is the image that can be seen just before Bruno Fernandes lays it off to McTominay. The ball was won on the left side, forcing many of Leeds’ players to have a starting position on United’s left, just as the Red Devils want. Bruno Fernandes sprints with the ball toward the penalty box, just as McTominay makes a run forward. Martial’s wide run forward has dragged Luke Ayling out with him, meaning even fewer Leeds defenders are now operating in a central position. This allows McTominay even more room to advance into before he lets the shot fly. Daniel James’ movement was also crucial here. James’ run in field takes the attention of Ezgjan Alioski, causing Alioski the inability to put any pressure on McTominay. On paper, this looks like a really simple goal. But it was meticulously designed by United and evidently a clear approach that Solskjaer wanted to take in the match.
On the second goal, we can again see several Leeds players dragged out to United’s left. Both Luke Ayling and Liam Cooper find themselves dragged out of position with Anthony Martial, and Mateuesz Klich is also preoccupied with Martial’s next steps rather than McTominay’s. Kalvin Phillips isn’t able to help due to Bruno’s wide position, and Daniel James makes a smart adjustment of his feet to go backwards, recognizing the space available to McTominay in the middle. Alioski is left floundering, and the Scottish midfielder scores his second of the game. Counter attacking football at its finest.
Before ending this section, we must re-emphasize United’s reliance on the left side for these attacks. It is not as though United never play the wide players in these examples. Against Newcastle, Rashford made an exceptional run in field, Bruno Fernandes overlapped on the left, and Rashford slipped him in. Against Everton, Cavani drifted to the left as Bruno Fernandes prepared to shoot. Fernandes slipped Cavani in instead, and the Red Devils scored. So although the verticality and centrality to their counter attacks remain important, it’s not to say that they don’t ever play the ball into the wide areas during these attacks. In fact, this probably happens to a greater frequency than a deep run from Paul Pogba or Scott McTominay. However, we’ve focused on this approach from United because of the number of goals that have been scored from these situations, and the distinctiveness that it gives Manchester United in their counter attacking approach in comparison to other sides.
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It’s a good thing that Rashford and Bruno Fernandes have been firing on all cylinders, because United’s defense has been far from brilliant this season. They’ve conceded 23 goals, the seventh worst in the league. That’s not usually something you’d expect from a team second in the table.
One of their main defensive issues has been from set-pieces. The Red Devils have conceded 6 goals from set-pieces this season, to which only Leeds, Leicester and Sheffield United have conceded more. They’re not particularly strong in the air, winning only the 15th most aerial duels per game. This could be surprising given the stature and size of players like Maguire, Lindelof, McTominay and Wan-Bissaka. But the Red Devils have been as bad as just about anyone this season from corners and free kicks. This has been partially out of a result of a zonal marking system that allows taller players like Declan Rice, Liam Cooper and Jan Bednarek to rise above smaller players like Anthony Martial, Fred and Alex Telles respectively at the near-post. If a man-marking system had been more diligently deployed, perhaps Manchester United would have matched those players up in size and not conceded the goals they did.
Solskjaer’s side have also given away far too many penalties this season, conceding four from the spot. This suggests somewhat of a problem of individual error rather than widescale defensive holes in their team, such as the defensive ineptitude of Paul Pogba, but it’s a problem they need to fix.
high press and high line
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge of Manchester United has been categorized by a high pressing system, which they have used meticulously well to win the ball and go on the counter attack. This high press also results in a high defensive line, which as we’ve seen with the likes of Leeds, Liverpool and Southampton this season, can lead to devastating issues when done incorrectly. I would perhaps argue though that United have been the most successful team in the league this season at deploying their high-line in defense, and using their press to their benefit before the opposition has any chance of exploiting the space in behind.
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The Red Devils have caught their opposition offside more times this season than anyone else other than Leeds United (0.1 less per game). The fact that they are catching their opposition offside on such a regular basis is important and useful in stopping potential attacks from breaking anywhere on the field, not just at the halfway line. Studying United’s goals conceded, the potential space in behind their high line doesn’t seem to be a terrible problem for them, and they’ve been relatively successful with their offside trap. As we all know, even if teams are able to exploit space in behind United’s defense, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is particularly adept at getting back into position and making important tackles. But it will be a potential concern for them if their press is broken, and something Solskjaer will need to keep an eye on moving forward.
With regards to their press, United often look to trap their opposition on the left, and intentionally force them to that side through careful positioning and body shape. The average position of their right winger is often more toward the middle than the right, one indication of this left-sided desire to their defensive approach. This allows United to have the likes of Rashford and Bruno Fernandes firing together as a tandem duo once the Red Devils win the ball back. Their press is also more often guided towards forcing their opposition to the outside, rather than back towards their own goal, using the touch-line as another defender. Their man-oriented pressing shape most often resembles a 4-4-2 on goal kicks, with the striker more likely to be engaged in the press high up the pitch than in other areas of the field.
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Bruno Fernandes also remains one of the team’s top tacklers, and the high press is one contributing factor. The fullback, one central midfielder, winger and Bruno will often form a tight diamond in the press, allowing their opposition little room to play out. When they win the ball and look to counter, Bruno is therefore always nearby. With his incredible mobility and durability, United always have their danger man as an outlet to pass to, because he always operates around the ball. This can be seen when United are both in and out of possession, and it’s one more reason why Bruno Fernandes is one of the most exceptional players in the league.
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With their impressive press and quick attacking transitions, Manchester United are one of the deadliest teams in the league. If they can overcome their defensive woes and sure things up when defending set-pieces, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team could be genuine title contenders this season. That’s a statement nobody would have said this time two months ago. They’ve done remarkably well to remain unbeaten in their last 10 league matches, and Solskjaer’s job looks secure for the time being, even despite crashing out of the UEFA Champions League.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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