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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Return of the Solskjaer

Solskjaer tweaked United’s approach yet again, and got the better of Guardiola for a third time this season

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

It was one game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proven time and time against this season that he’s capable of masterminding a game plan to win one game no matter who the opponent.

But this wasn’t just one game. It was the fourth Manchester Derby of the season and Manchester United had already won two of them.

In terms of the full narrative, this one game would be their third win against their hated rivals this season — and if beating Pep Guardiola three times in one campaign was simple, the list of managers who’ve done it would be more than two names long.

Manchester United are now unbeaten in their last 10, keeping clean sheets in 8 of those matches. They’ve kept a clean sheet in 11 of 17 matches in 2020.

That good run of form has left the #OleOut brigade short of excuses. They’ll try to play down the success of another Manchester Derby win by saying that once again Ole beats the good teams by just sitting deep and playing on the counter.

They’ll tell you that Ole is playing too defensive and setting the team up in a back five, at home.

And of course they would be wrong.

After Solskjaer got the better of Guardiola in their first league meeting in December, Pep struck back in the first leg of the League Cup. Since then, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone toe to toe with the Catalan twice, and displayed yet another fantastic game plan to beat him.

Not surprisingly, Solskjaer lined his team up in the 3-4-1-2 formation that he’s turned to a few times recently. As we mentioned last week, the difference between a back five and a back three is just how high you push your fullbacks up. If you were worried about United’s fullbacks dropping into a back five, right off the bat they showed you just how high they were going to push up in United’s press.

This formation fits United because when Luke Shaw plays as the left center back, it’s extremely fluid. Williams or Shaw can push up and form a 4-2-3-1. The fullbacks can drop back into a back five when needed. Or Bruno Fernandes can push up to make a front three for United’s press.

That fluidity is the key here. If you keep giving Manchester City different looks, then they don’t know what you’re going to do on any given sequence. That makes it hard to know where to attack.

United were doing this from the start. Right off the bat they began pressing City deep, forcing Ederson to hoof a ball up the pitch and give possession back to United.

Just as quickly as they came at City with a press, they backed off it.

United stayed very organized and very compact. They let City enjoy possession around the halfway line. When City finally did try to push the ball forward towards United’s goal, they’d converge on them and win the ball back.

They then just had the problem of their midfielders giving the ball right back to City.

A problem that has frankly plagued them all season.

Just as quickly as United had called off their high press, it was back on.

Harry Maguire steps up on Sergio Aguero forcing him to lay it off to Bernardo Silva. Silva already has Nemanja Matić on his shoulder, and Matić just gently guides him into the path of Fred, who’s able to take the ball away.

United have been doing this all year. It’s what happens when they win the ball back that has hurt them.

When you win the ball back, the first pass has to be made quickly. If you wait even a second, you allow the other team to get back into shape, and suddenly your advantage goes away. That first pass is so crucial to creating a scoring chance, and that first pass is where United have really struggled this season.

This, from Sunday was much better.

Matić plays the ball quickly to Fred who gets it right to Bruno. You can argue though, that Fred still took too much time. There’s just a moment of hesitation between when he gets the ball and when he passes to Bruno. In that moment City’s defense nearly get set and recover. Sensing the danger, left back Alexandr Zinchenko is able to come over and provide cover. All that means Bruno doesn’t have the time to get the ball, slightly in front of him, under control. He just has to quickly get it out to James, dragging the winger just a tad wide.

It’s much better than it used to be, but there’s still room for improvement.

For all the focus that was spent over the last three years on the Guardiola vs Mourinho storyline whenever these two teams played, it’s been fascinating how much of a chess match these games have become now that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in charge. If you’re City, what do you if United are staying compact? How do you get your players space?

That’s Pep’s next move. You have to create space.

Just like he did in the first leg of the League Cup, he pushed his wide players wide. Really wide. Hugging the touch line wide.

Keeping that winger wide puts a lot of pressure on the wingback, in this case Brandon Williams. The wide man is Williams’ responsibility, and he knows that.

But he also needs to be mindful of the gap between him and Shaw. He can’t let it get too big — that’s what City exploited back in January.

With the extra center back there in Shaw, United were able to manage that space. Thus, City needed to find a way to get Shaw out of that space. It took them nearly all game, but their best chance of the match came when they were able to do exactly that.

Riyad Mahrez is off the screen, that’s how wide he is. When Shaw steps up ever so slightly onto Phil Foden, there’s a slight moment of hesitation from Brandon Williams as to whether he should cover out wide or take a step in to cover Shaw. That moment was all City needed to get a ball past him and in deep.

Oddly, this play becomes a big chance because of a moment of weakness from Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The right back is lollygagging it back into position. Once the break comes, he barely starts running. That leaves Victor Lindelöf having to run between Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. He needs to be mindful of both, and thus doesn’t close down Sterling until it’s too late. Luckily, Sterling doesn’t score in Manchester Derbies.

United switched their press on and off throughout the match. You can’t press for 90 minutes; you’ll wear yourself out and eventually your opponent will pick you apart. That’s why it’s crucial to know when to turn it on, and when not to.

That’s not easy to do at all. A modern day press only works when the entire team is moving as a unit. If you decide to apply pressure but one player isn’t in the right place, you’re giving your opponent a get out of jail free card. And all the effort that you just expended goes to waste.

In order for this to work, every single player on the pitch needs to be on the same page. There’s no better example of United being on the same page than this sequence.

United get the ball deep, so Daniel James, Anthony Martial, and the midfield four push up the pitch. But at first, everyone just holds their ground. That’s because Bruno Fernandes isn’t there yet. As soon as Fernandes gets up the field, Martial and James then begin applying pressure on City.

The result? Fernandinho eventually trying to play a long ball to clear the pressure, leading to the turnover and Dan James’ shot from above.

A few minutes later, United were right back at it off a City throw in. They momentarily pressed hard, until City decided to go back to their defenders.

United are more than happy to let City do this. Build up from the back. Build up slowly.

United stay organized, stay compact. They make City build up all the way from the back. This is exactly what United want City to do. Building up from the back is slow, it’s methodical, it’s...every adjective they ever used to describe United during Louis van Gaal’s time here.

When your buildup is this slow, it allows the opponents to stay organized. It also makes it really hard to break them down. You need a combination of factors to do it. Someone needs to make the right run, the player with the ball needs to see that run, he needs to play a nearly inch perfect ball, and even then you usually need to hope a defender makes a mistake along the way.

This match was intense right from the kickoff. Really intense. For that reason we’re always going to remember it fondly. It felt like we weren’t able to exhale until Martial scored that goal off a brilliant Bruno set piece.

But then, we knew City were going to come with an onslaught to start the second half. We knew they’d throw everything forward in the final 10 minutes. When we look back on this game we’ll always remember the Martial goal and McTominay sealing it.

But if you go back and rewatch the full match knowing the ending, you’ll be faced with a really inconvenient truth.

This match was boring as hell.

That’s because for the most part it was just this.

City passing the ball around in the middle third of the pitch. You almost wish United sat back and played on the counter. Counter attacking football is fun. Remember the first 30 minutes of the Derby back in December? It was awesome (unintentional Tommy Boy reference). This was just United’s defense completely smothering City. They never even looked bothered until Mahrez came on.

This was a defensive performance for the ages, but don’t let someone tell you that United “sat deep and countered.” United only launched about two counters all game, and they certainly didn’t sit back.

Take a look at this chart of where the ball was over the first hour of the game.

At this point City had 63.33% possession. But where? 48.2% of the match had been played in the middle third of the pitch. Another 31.2% was played in City’s end. Despite only having 36.67% possession, United managed to keep nearly 80 percent of the match away from their goal.

When all was said and done, United only allowed City to complete two passes within 20 yards of their goal. Simply phenomenal.

This was achieved by every player on the team giving their full effort and going all out. City score a lot of goals after the 80th minute and United were beginning to tire. With just over 12 minutes to go Solskjaer made two changes, bringing on Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly for Anthony Martial and Brandon Williams.

There was not going to be any more fluidity to this back three. Bailly was going to be a third center back, and the wing backs were going to drop deep to play a back five. It was going to be a 5-3-2 and United were going to spend the final 10-12 minutes absorbing pressure.

This was an extremely defensive change. United have done things like this before and I’m on record as saying it’s probably cost them points. The more players you have back, the more players City can throw forward. 10 minutes is too long to play like this.

Here’s the same chart as before but from when Martial and Williams were subbed off the field. Already you can see that since the hour mark, City were starting to push United back. They certainly needed to make a change.

In this 5-3-2 United had no outlet. When they got the ball up the field they couldn’t hold onto it, allowing City to just attack and attack and attack. After 10 minutes Solskjaer made another change, removing the tired Bruno for Odion Ighalo.

Here’s the chart again when Ighalo came on.

In the 10 minutes between subs, the ball was in City’s final third for roughly seven-ish seconds. It was in United’s final third for just over four of those 10 minutes. Solskjaer brought on Ighalo in hopes that the striker could just provide some sort of hold up play so United could keep possession in the middle third, and maybe just relieve the defense a little bit.

I’d say it worked pretty well.

Over the two (plus six in injury time) minutes Ighalo was on, the ball was in the middle third of the pitch for about four of them. At full time it looked like this.

Twenty seven percent possession and yet Manchester United forced 73 percent of the match to be played outside of their own final third.