You may not like it. You may not want to admit it. But the Busby Babe doesn’t care for your delicate nature. The Busby Babe is here to drop the hard truths. And right now, right here, there’s no truth harder than this. Jose Mourinho was right all along:
Manchester United are not wearing any trousers.
Trousers, of course, means “defending”. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, United have kept three clean sheets in nine games. Those have come against Newcastle, who aren’t very good, Reading, who are knocking around near the bottom of the Championship, and Tottenham, who spent the entire game kicking the ball within reach of David de Gea’s marvellous, magical feet. Go up, lads. Test his shoulders.
United have conceded at least once in the other six, which isn’t great. Worse, one of those was against Huddersfield, who have scored just 13 league goals all season. Add to that the mere four clean sheets under Mourinho, and the fact that so much of last season’s second place finish was thanks to De Gea, and … yeah. The defending. It isn’t.
But you knew all this already. You don’t have to watch United for long to realise that things are a pretty ropey at the back. What’s interesting about this wobbliness is how it’s persisted out of Mourinho’s time and into Solskjaer’s: by providing a clean through-line, it allows us to consider what has changed.
Broadly speaking, a problem is dealt with in two stages. The first part is identifying what the problem actually is; the second is devising and coming up with some kind of solution. Both Mourinho and Solskjaer, along with everybody else approximating human consciousness, were able to identify that United’s defence is not great.
The question is, then, how to cope with that? Mourinho, following his instincts, had a two-part strategy. On the field, play like cringing cowards; off it, insult the players he had and attempt to browbeat his bosses into buying new ones.
Can’t defend with four? Defend with eight! Also drop Paul Pogba, he keeps giving the ball away. Can’t defend with these clowns? Buy some more expensive clowns! You can kind of see the logic, but it didn’t work. Instead we got a team that couldn’t really defend but wasn’t doing much attacking either. Just as likely to lose games; far less likely to actually win them.
Whether that was down to a lack of talent, or a problem in training, or just the natural consequence of constant tinkering and an all-out assault on player’s confidence, will be a question for the future and for the autobiographies. Maybe a mix of all three? Though whoever gets the manager’s job, we’d guess that there will be lots of defence-related business going on. Mourinho was right, remember.
Solskjaer, not a manager previously noted for his rigorous defensive organisation, has taken a different tack. United are playing higher, quicker, and with more attacking intent; the full-backs are spending more time in the opposing half; and Pogba is back doing what he was bought to do, roaming around, trying things, giving the ball away occasionally.
One problem, two solutions. Try and cover the soft centre, or try and expose the opposition’s. The results have obviously been better for Solskjaer, albeit he has yet to face either of the league’s two properly good teams, and has faced plenty of its actually bad. But beyond the results, the approach has various other benefits, all of which add up to the good mood that is bouncing around the place.
For a start, it’s much more fun to watch. This matters: crowds talk to players, in a chaotic, messy way. And it also looks a lot more fun to play. Obviously, professional football is an extremely serious business that must be treated with straight faces at all times. But there’s been a marked decrease in frustrated hand-waving, pointing, and general on-pitch tension. It’s still a job, but it seems a much more fulfilling one.
Here we pause to note that Anthony Martial has signed that new contract.
It also accentuates the strengths of the squad. If your defenders are bad, but you’ve got Pogba, Martial, and Marcus Rashford — not to mention Romelu Lukaku and whatever’s left of Alexis Sanchez — then it seems almost perverse to ask the latter group of players to limit themselves in order to cover for the former. Why have one dodgy part of the team, when you could have three? Particularly when it doesn’t seem to work.
And you have to imagine that it feels better, too. For everybody involved. Instead of a defence that has its inadequacies baked into the team’s preparation, and an attacked neutered by design, you’ve got a defence that Solskjaer and his team back to do enough, even if imperfectly, and an attack given the freedom and responsibility of actively pursuing victory.
Solskjaer is, of course, able to luxuriate in the pressure-free role of the caretaker. All the mess belongs to somebody else. But the broader template has been so energising, so quickly, that it stands as something of a lesson on how to approach this kind of problem, and what United should be looking for in their next manager.
Back to the trousers. Solskjaer and Mourinho, standing in public, cold wind whipping around their shins. Only a thin pair of smalls — yes, that’s David de Gea, just go with it — between themselves and total exposure. But where Mourinho’s solution was to try and cover himself up, all the while complaining bitterly, Solskjaer has decided to own it:
Yes, I may not be wearing any trousers. But look! Nor are you. And I have the bigger hat.
Which is, of course, exactly how a trouser-less United team should be approaching the problem. How utterly refreshing.