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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got it wrong, again

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There is a worrying pattern developing, and United’s manager isn’t learning from his mistakes

Manchester United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

While we were all busy celebrating the success of the midfield diamond in Manchester United’s 5-0 thrashing of RB Leipzig last week, it appears I forgot what I had written just a few days earlier. Outcome bias is a real thing. Celebrate the results, but when analyzing the match, look at the performances.

The biggest concern about the diamond was that United don’t create much from it. They didn’t last Wednesday until Solskjaer replaced Mason Greenwood with Marcus Rashford, and it was only after switching to a 4-3-3 that United blew the doors off RB Leipzig.

That’s not to take away from the formation’s success. United completely stifled Leipzig and even if they played for three hours, the Germans were never going to get close to United’s goal.

For some reason though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided to run the diamond back against Arsenal on Sunday. That was a really peculiar decision considering Arsenal are not a dangerous team going forward. In fact, their attack is particularly bad. They are however a very good defensive team that plays a low block far more similar to David Moyes’ Everton than anything Mikel Arteta would have learned under Pep Guardiola.

A pattern seems to be developing for Solskjaer now. United are seeming to make their team selections based on “well this worked when we played them last year” or “this worked last week” without actually taking into account the current situation they’re in.

Like I said last week, I give Solskjaer a pass on the team selection against Chelsea because no one expected the Blues to play so conservatively. Where he erred was not changing things up sooner.

Against Arsenal there was no excuse. You knew this was how Arsenal were going to play.

And yet Solskjaer chose a formation that United have always struggled to create chances from.

According to Rob Blanchette on The Elite Football Show’s Masterclass Podcast, the players and coaches came to a consensus together on playing the diamond again against Arsenal due to the success against Leipzig.

That is an indictment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They’re the players, you’re the coach. I understand the desire to have an open dialogue with the players, and you want your stars/senior players to have input, but at the end of the day, you’re the coach. You need to recognize that Arsenal are not the same team as Leipzig and have different strengths and weaknesses. Some things that worked against one won’t work against the other.

This match was unfortunately entirely predictable. Following the 6-1 loss against Spurs, it’s going to be a while before Solskjaer doesn’t err on the side of caution. Given how Arsenal play it was always going to be a cagey match where one bad bounce can ruin the whole thing.

The non-penalty xG for this match finished 0.39-0.24 in favor of United. United didn’t deserve to win. Arsenal didn’t deserve to win either. Last week against Chelsea it was 0.65-0.22. Last week there wasn’t a bounce and the game ended in a draw. Sunday there was a bounce and it went Arsenal’s way.

When United lost 6-1 to Tottenham I wrote about how there were legitimate questions to ask about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

First and foremost was the defense. For the most part, Solskjaer has fixed that. In the three games since the last international break United’s non-penalty expected goals against is just 1.32, by far the best in the league. They’ve only conceded from a fluke own goal and a penalty. That record has extended into the Champions League as well.

But bolstering that defense has come at a cost. United don’t create anything. Their 6.81 expected goals is 17th in the league, and that includes penalties! Given the defensive issues Solskjaer has had to add another defensive midfielder, and for some reason, that has meant going back to the McTominay-Fred pairing.

They were great against PSG when they only had to do half a job, they were poor against Chelsea because Chelsea wanted them to have the ball. It’s no surprise that against an Arsenal team doing the same they’d be poor again.

United are currently creating about 1.14 expected goals per 90, but when McTominay and Fred are on the field together that number drops to 0.60. That’s not too far off from last season where the two had the lowest xG and second lowest goals per game of any midfield pair for the club.

I don’t know how much more we have to see this pair to know they can’t play together in the Premier League.

That’s not to say they can’t play if the opponent is right. We know they’re good in big games, but outside of against the top three teams in England, they just can’t cut it. This is starting to become a major concern in United’s midfield. They NEED someone who can make opponents pay if given space.

Just look at this instance here. Arsenal are sitting right on United’s threats. Mason Greenwood is wide open. All you need to do is play a ball over the top to him.

Fred played this ball several times to Dan James (mostly unsuccessfully) in the League Cup match vs Brighton but for some reason didn’t even try on Sunday.

This was why United were so much better when Paul Pogba was on the pitch last year. They need someone with the ability to play that pass.

But this year he’s become a liability defensively. Bruno Fernandes has played there in the past but Solskjaer has been hesitant to use him there and there are questions about Bruno’s defense as well. It’s also clear Solskjaer sees Donny van de Beek as a number 10 even though he has played deeper in his career. At some point, you’re going to have to try something.

Over the past four games Solskjaer has had a very simple plan. Keep things tight for the first hour and then change the match with your substitutions. Pogba came on against Newcastle, United slightly changed their shape, and blew them away. Pogba came on against PSG, United changed their shape and found a win.

Against Chelsea it was like-for-like subs but eventually he removed McTominay for Greenwood. United had their best attacking spell of the match over the final eight minutes and it only makes you wonder what might have been if he’d done it sooner. Against Leipzig it was the same. Keep it close for an hour, hope a chance falls to Greenwood, then blow them away with your subs.

But what was the plan against Arsenal? Keep it tight against an Arsenal team that doesn’t attack? And how were you going to change that? Despite Arsenal not coming near United’s goal in open play, and United not getting anywhere near the Gunners’ net, it was all like-for-like subs from Solskjaer. How did he expect that to change things?

More worryingly, why does it seem like Solskjaer hasn’t learned anything from the previous matches?

United have picked up some big wins over the past two weeks but with each of them there were big warning signs that things were much closer than they appeared. When you keep playing on lines of the ultra thin margins, you’re not going to keep coming out on top.

When I said this after the PSG, Chelsea, and Leipzig matches I was called cynical. I wish I was shocked when those same warning signs reared their ugly heads four days later.

There are legitimate questions to be asked of Solskjaer now. What is your plan B when Anthony Martial — the only first choice United forward who can hold up play effectively — isn’t available? If it’s Cavani, where was he? Why’d you take Matić out on Wednesday if you weren’t using him on Sunday? Do you have a plan for what to do about the RW position or are we just hoping Greenwood is going to finish developing the rest of his game overnight? Why did you run back a formation that doesn’t quite fit your personnel, doesn’t match your opponent, and especially when you’re missing two of the most important pieces to make it work?

Solskjaer is a smart guy. He can figure this out. But there’s no way to deny the clock is ticking. He better do it quickly.