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Manchester United Tactical Review: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer plays his cards well from a bad hand

Solskjaer’s tactics put United in a good position, but his players let him down

Manchester United v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

When picking a team to face Liverpool, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could only play the cards that he was holding, and without his best midfielder/playmaker (Paul Pogba) and his best center forward (Anthony Martial), he was holding a bad hand. Despite the hand he was dealt, Solskjaer played his cards brilliantly.

In a nutshell, this game personified Solskjaer’s time at Manchester United. Solskjaer displayed his football brain by once again coming up with a tactical plan that stifled the opponents’ attack and was once again let down by the players lack of ability, or poor decision-making in the final third.

Criticized for obsessively sticking with a 4-2-3-1 formation that United don’t seem to have the personnel to play, the Norwegian changed things up this week to great effect.

United came out in a hybrid 3-4-1-2 formation that had the flexibility to switch to a 5-2-1-2, a 5-4-1, or even a 4-3-3. The look caught Liverpool by surprise, and in the first half worked wonders.

When we think of Liverpool’s attack, we think of that fearsome front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane. But those three are merely the finishing product; the creativity behind Liverpool’s attack comes from deeper down the pitch. Not from Liverpool’s midfield, but from their fullbacks.

Last season Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson tied for the league lead with 11 assists apiece. To have one defender get 10 assists in a season is incredible. To have two do it is simply astonishing.

Solskjaer’s plan cut the attack off at the source.

Full back Ashley Young was deployed as hybrid left wing back/left winger to challenge Alexander-Arnold further up the pitch. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was tasked with doing the same thing on the right.

United’s front line came out in a very controlled press. They didn’t run around for the sake of running, they actually sat back until the ball was played towards an area that they wanted it to go to. Then they put the pressure on.

The goal was simple. Pressure the full backs high up the field, make them get rid of the ball and don’t allow those fullbacks to have the ball in dangerous areas.

It doesn’t matter that United aren’t winning the ball back in a dangerous position. What matters is it’s knocking Liverpool off their game, which results in United having the ball. That keeps the pressure off United’s defense and plays a significant role in why they don’t concede chances.

There’s an element of luck in here too. The absence of Mohammed Salah was very helpful for United to do what they wanted to do. At times Liverpool would be patient against United’s half press and wait for Wan-Bissaka to commit forward. Then Andy Robertson would play a long ball into the channel for Divock Origi.

Let’s just say this tactic would have played out very differently if it was Salah or Mane chasing those balls down against Victor Lindelöf rather than Origi.

In midfield, Solskjaer had virtually no choice but to go with the Scott McTominay-Fred partnership once again. Knowing that relying on them for buildup play would consist of lateral passes and more lateral passes, the Norwegian made another change.

He bypassed the midfield.

The role of playing line-breaking passes fell to the defenders. Whether it be Wan-Bissaka and Young pushing up the field, or Lindelöf and Harry Maguire playing them from deep. (This is why he would have preferred to start Axel Tuanzebe, not only is he good defensively, but he’s great at playing these passes.) Once again the issue was: when the pass is made, what did United do with it?

It was a very defensive approach from Solskjaer. It was also a very direct approach. As a United fan, that’s not how I want them to play. I don’t want to see the team set up with a back three/five/seven at Old Trafford against Liverpool. I, like everyone else, want to see them take the game to their opponents and beat them.

But again, Solskjaer could only play the cards he was dealt. With the injuries and the lack of quality in the players available, what else was he to do?

Yes United played defensively on Sunday, but it’s not like they parked the bus. This three quarters “sometimes pressing, sometimes not” was similar to the style of play United played during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. In fact, it was very similar to how United played in 2007-08 when they won the Premier League and Champions League with Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Cristiano Ronaldo up front. If you don’t think United used to play defensively back then, I’d encourage you to rewatch the second leg of the 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal.

In many of his press conferences this year, Solskjaer has been at pains to explain how he wants the team to play. In his post match press conference he explained it again:

“It depends on what you call a counter-attack. We’re better when we attack quickly, no dilly-dallying, but it doesn’t have to be a counter-attack. I spoke about it before the game: take more risks, be braver, it doesn’t matter if you lose the ball up there, you can win it back. Being more direct helps us.”

United’s goal was exactly what he was talking about.

McTominay gets the ball, immediately plays it forward and the attack is on.

Earlier in the game United get a similar chance, but Marcus Rashford doesn’t break. He gets the ball, thinks there’s no one with him and eventually passes back the defense. Why? At the very least, turn and go forward with the ball. If you lose the ball, it’s OK. Your men are back!

For most of the season, the knock against Solskjaer has been that “there’s no clear style” of how he wants the team to play. This game once again displayed that there is a style, but the ability of the players consistently lets him down.

That brings us back to the press. There are two reasons to press. One is to not let the opponents play their game. The other is to win the ball back in dangerous areas, thus creating good goal scoring opportunities for yourself.

United’s press was spectacular in the first half. The reason they didn’t win the game is because they failed to turn that press into shots and goal-scoring opportunities. Why? Because once again the players on the ball made terrible decisions.

Look at this play from early in the first half. United lose the ball, press, and immediately win it back. They then get the ball into Young who is in acres of space. But Young just turns and whips it across to no one.

Later, Wan-Bissaka picks out a good run from Andreas Pereira. Pereira’s first touch is poor, which is fine because the initial ball is far from perfect, but he follows it up by just flinging it to the middle. Why? To whom?

Solskjaer wants the players to be confident on the ball. Young could have turned into the box, then either taken a shot or forced Liverpool’s defenders to open up. For Pereira, there’s no harm in just taking it further towards the touch line and resetting, or using Rashford as a support outlet.

But the play that takes the cake obviously comes from everyone’s favorite midfielder, Fred.

Once again, United lose the ball, press very well and win the ball back immediately. Except this time it comes to Fred WHO GOES STRAIGHT BACK TO HARRY MAGUIRE WITH IT. I understand that Fred is left footed and the way he was facing made it easy, but look at the pitch when Fred gets the ball.

The right side is pretty congested but there is NO ONE between Fred and Young. A quick turn and a hard pass could get that ball across. If you have to play it high and hard, the overlapping Marcos Rojo would have gotten there too. Even if Fred just held it for a second and looked up that would be fine, because the Maguire safety valve would always be there. Instead Fred goes straight back to Maguire and the attack is dead.

Plays like that that sum up why United are in the position they’re in. For all the good pressing United did, they ended the game with just six shots (two on target). Solskjaer’s tactics put them in good positions, but the players failed on the ball.

In the second half, United fell back into more of a defensive shell. It made sense; Liverpool put more of a front foot forward and simply put, you can’t press for 90 minutes. It has to be done in waves and by the second half United were exhausted.

That’s been the danger of Solskjaer’s team. They don’t turn their press into enough chances and thus don’t score enough goals. No matter how good you are you’re going to eventually give up a chance and teams have been very clinical against United this year.

When you have Marcos Rojo on the pitch, that one chance becomes even more dangerous, and Adam Lallana made United pay.

What is Marcos Rojo even doing here?

You have to wonder what happens if Tuanzebe doesn’t get hurt in the warm-up.

Coming into this match, everyone though Liverpool were going to play United off the field. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t holding a great hand, but he played it brilliantly, and he has every reason to be upset United didn’t get more than a point from this one.