This season, matches against big name managers have been a quasi-proving ground for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s fared very well in them, showing just how much potential he has, with Manchester United’s slip ups coming against the smaller sides.
Earlier this season defeating José Mourinho or earning a draw against Jurgen Klopp was considered a big moment. On Friday, coming away with a draw against Mourinho showed more how far the Portuguese has fallen than any sort of growth for Solskjaer.
At the end of 90 minutes Tottenham Hotspur looked fortunate to escape with a point. Mourinho’s side looked exhausted. Solskjaer, who’s emphasized making his team fitter from the moment he arrived, presided over a side that looked like they could still play for another 20 or so minutes when the final whistle blew.
Solskjaer got a lot wrong on Friday, there’s no doubt about that. But how much blame can be put on the Norwegian is up for debate. This was ultimately a learning experience because, like it or not, this weekend was the first ‘new football’ game Solskjaer, or Mourinho, Klopp, Frank Lampard, or Carlo Ancelotti have ever managed.
That is what the new rules have brought us. A different game of football. The water breaks now means we’re effectively playing four quarters instead of two halves. Five substitutions means you can change literally half your outfield players. Knowing how to use those new rules properly can give you a big advantage.
Solskjaer didn’t use them properly on Friday, and it cost him two points in a tight top four race. Learning curve.
United started this match out really slowly — which isn’t a surprise given the layoff. An early exchange between Bruno Fernandes and Daniel James provided a great example.
Bruno either needs to play this ball wider, or James needs to make more of an angled run in behind. Neither happens and the ball isn’t that great. There was a lot of this over the first few minutes. Just old fashioned rust.
Given the situation, there was nothing wrong with the 11 players Solskjaer picked on Friday nor with the formation he chose. The issue was with how he lined them up in that formation.
Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 doesn’t feature a flat midfield base. Rather, within the midfield pair there is a more defensive #6 and a more box-to-box #8. The number 8 has the freedom to run all over the pitch, initiate the press and be an overall disruptor.
In theory, it can be either one of the midfielders playing as the 6 or the 8 but in Solskjaer’s system, the 6 has always been the left-sided one, with the 8 playing on the right (most likely because of Wan-Bissaka’s presence). This will be important later.
On Friday Solskjaer chose Fred and Scott McTominay as that pair. The general consensus being because the pair shined against Tottenham back in December. In that game, McTominay took on the defensive #6 role with Fred playing the free running #8 role. This might have had to do with McTominay returning quickly from an injury, but it worked. The pair rallied off their best stretch of the season, and McTominay’s form took a noticeable improvement before he succumbed to another injury on Boxing Day.
In 2020, Fred would play the same role alongside Nemanja Matić and United’s midfield continued to excel.
On Friday, Solskjaer opted for Fred to play as the more defensive #6 with McTominay getting the box-to-box role. This was a reversion to how the pair played back in October and November. It’s how the pair played when they struggled mightily against the likes of Newcastle and Bournemouth.
Solskjaer’s first mistake was assuming Spurs would play similarly to how they did at Old Trafford. That was back in Mourinho’s third match in charge and he hadn’t had a chance to fully ‘Mourinho-ize’ the team yet. Tottenham had more of the ball that game (53% possession,) allowing United to be the organized defensive team who picked their spots to attack.
In Friday’s reverse fixture however, Mourinho set his team up like a lower division side trying to provide a giant killing in the FA Cup. These are the kind of sides Solskjaer’s United have struggled with and this one was no different.
In order to beat teams that are happy to let you have the ball, you have to play very quick passes through the midfield, especially right after you win the ball back.
United do this here when Bruno quickly moves it to Fred who gets it forward to Anthony Martial who can get it to Marcus Rashford and allow him to run at defenders.
Without the quick passing it looks a lot like the Newcastle game, with everyone making lateral passes.
In Solskjaer’s system, the onus of moving the ball from the back to the forward line — whether it be via pass or carry — falls to the number 8, in this case McTominay.
This is not McTominay’s strong suit. He struggles when he has to move the ball quickly. He struggled at this against Bournemouth and he struggled again on Friday.
Here he makes a great interception, but instead of trying to quickly catch Spurs out, he just goes back to Fred. The Brazilian reacts quickly to get Martial the ball, but the attack still dies because the Frenchman was also too slow with it.
McTominay started the game brightly as his role allowed him to be all over the pitch, getting himself involved in a lot of early tackles. But once he got the ball he was often too safe with it and failed to turn it into an attacking chance.
Here, he gets the ball in loads of space. Instead of settling and turning on it he quickly plays it square to Shaw, who’s not really open. When Shaw plays it to Fred, the Brazilian takes the chance to advance it up field.
Later, the same thing happens. It’s a poor pass to McTominay but all he has to do is touch it into space and he’ll be able to run on and control it. Instead it’s a first touch square ball to Wan-Bissaka, and when he gets it back he’s just hopelessly launching it down the pitch.
When McTominay does control the ball, his passing has improved greatly, and he’s been able to pick out good passes to start the break.
He also did it in the first half when given a chance to get the ball under control.
The above break died down due to the lack of movement from Bruno, Dan James, and Martial —something that would become a theme on the night. McTominay’s vision to pick out this pass is excellent, though. What’s unfortunate is that these moments happen all too rarely during a match. He needs to start doing this consistently. A minute later that inconsistency showed when McTominay couldn’t smoothly and quickly control a chest high pass, which forced him in to a quick pass that was intercepted.
Just like in the matches against Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Everton at home, McTominay and Fred failed to assert themselves in midfield. Mourinho had his attackers sitting right on top of them, and thus United struggled to progress the ball.
Some early thoughts from 15 minutes in.— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) June 19, 2020
- Fred is by far playing as the deeper of the two midfielders
- United are controlling this match but really struggling to move the ball from the back 6 to the front 4, which is not surprising given the MF selection #MUFC
“This is why United signed a player like Bruno Fernandes.”
That was a direct quote from the commentator after watching United pass it amongst themselves for the better part of the first 14 minutes.
This happened merely seconds later. Fernandes comes deep to collect the ball. McTominay switches positions with him and moves into the number 10 role, where Bruno promptly finds him with a beautiful pass between the lines.
This is exactly how Bruno and Pogba should be playing, but instead of Pogba now in the 10 role, it’s McTominay. That’s not where you want Scott to have the ball and his limitations were immediately evident as he fires a poor ball in towards Rashford.
This was the first quarter-ish of the match in a nutshell, were United had all the possession but could not generate a shot — until 21 minutes in. That’s when Fred pushed up beyond McTominay, Bruno made a quick blind cross, and it still took a Spurs mishap for United to get an attempt.
With Fred pushed up forward United managed to keep up the pressure and create another chance. The only problem is that Fred is a terrible shooter. At least he puts this on target but it was never going to trouble Lloris.
United finally looked like they were getting something going and that’s when it happened. The water break.
This is a pivotal moment in the new game format. A one minute break may not seem like much, but it now gives the managers an opportunity to speak with their players and give instructions that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do until halftime.
This makes it much easier to make tactical tweaks after 20 minutes than it normally would have been. Not to say that Solskjaer wasn’t on the pitch talking with his players (he was) but it’s Mourinho who took full advantage of this.
Mourinho spends extra time with Steven Bergwijn and whatever he said must have worked. About three minutes later this happened.
It’s hard to know how much credit we should give to Mourinho though, when this goal involved Harry Maguire essentially having his controller unplugged for a split second and David de Gea not saving a shot that was hit directly at him.
The water break would have been the perfect chance for Solskjaer to make a tweak and address his struggling midfield — like swapping Fred and McTominay’s roles. This comes into play on the goal, as Fred is still on the left side (the more defensive midfielder). After Maguire gets beat, Fred catches up to Bergwijn but doesn’t have the cynicism to pull him down. That’s something that McTominay surely would have done, even if it meant a booking.
With Mourinho’s side now packing it in even further the half ended with barely a whimper. This lead to Solskjaer’s second mistake. At halftime, he didn’t make any changes, just the tweak (that could have been made much earlier) of swapping the roles of Fred and McTominay.
As a result, the second half started with more of the same. United hardly threatened with this break, started with a clever pass from Fernandes after coming deep to get the ball. He caps it off with a poor shot selection considering United are on a break and have numbers forward.
In fairness to Fernandes, Dan James is horrible here. He stops short just before the shot when he needed to do a better job of running wide to create space for Fernandes.
This was the story of the first hour of the match. After 62 minutes the xG was 0.52-0.43 in favor of United. Five minutes later, it was 0.95-0.43. Wonder what changed?
After 63 minutes Paul Pogba finally returned to the pitch for United. Knowing that if he sprayed passes all over the pitch for his teammates to fail to finish the resulting chances some would still say he “didn’t do anything,” within a minute Pogba went out and did something.
Seconds later United had their best chance of the game, only to be thwarted by Eric Dier.
Two minutes later Pogba’s presence helped set up an even better chance. Luke Shaw wins the ball from Davinson Sanchez down on the left flank. Due to the presence of Pogba and Rashford, no Spurs defender can leave their man, forcing Sanchez to deal with Shaw one on one. Once Shaw beats him he’s able to play a great ball in front to Martial.
The pitch was now completely sloped in United’s favor. The Red Devils had all the momentum and it was only a matter of time before an equalizer came.
And then it happened again.
The water break. The chance to coach your players. The chance to make some tweaks.
Once again it was used perfectly by Mourinho. In this case he didn’t make any changes — he just settled his team down and spoke to them on how to deal with this new look United. This was the equivalent of taking a 20-second timeout in basketball after your opponent goes on a 9-0 run.
The game leveled out for another 10 minutes before Solskjaer finally made a change. He brought on Nemanja Matić for Victor Lindelöf and played Matić and McTominay in a back three with Maguire. Oddly, the center-back who had the freedom to step up the most was...Harry Maguire.
The change got United some momentum again but they would still need a piece of individual play to grab their equalizer.
Over the last 10 minutes United looked the far more likely team to go on and find a winner. No doubt because of the superior fitness levels — and the fact that Solskjaer used all five of his allotted subs compared to Mourinho using two.
The idea that Solskjaer doesn’t make changes fast enough is a bit overblown. On average, his first substitution comes in the 67th minute. When United are losing it comes in the 63rd — and that doesn’t even take into account that for most of the season he had no one to bring on.
On Friday his first change came in the 63rd minute, which turned out to be one of the worst times to make a change, again because of the new substitution rules.
Football management has always been a game of moves and counter moves. Solskjaer made his move in the 63rd minute and it completely swung the game, but because of the water break Mourinho was able to make a counter move five minutes later. The lack of time between the change the water break negated the effectiveness of Solskjaer’s adjustments.
It’s hard to hold too much of this against Solskjaer. No one has ever managed like this before in the Premier League and there’s an expected learning curve. Not many people expected Mourinho to go Full Mourinho on Friday night, and thus the inclusion of McTominay and James in the starting XI was more than justified. But when it became clear that Tottenham were just going to sit back, and this wasn’t a match built for those two players’ skillsets, a change had to be made.
The hesitancy to change things up resulted in the match playing out like too many matches have this season.
United were overall good enough to win (the xG finished 1.77-0.53, or 1.01-0.53 without the penalty). They created a bit but weren’t clinical enough to guard against one fluke or one mistake causing them to drop points. That’s what happened — again — and considering they’re not a very clinical team in front of goal they need to create more chances.
This has been the story of United’s season, but most of the time with the caveat of United missing their most creative player. Solskjaer ran the risk of exactly this happening when he left Pogba out of the starting XI.
Pogba was rusty when he came on, but so was Rashford. So were Daniel James, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred, and the whole lot. The difference is, when Pogba and Rashford are rusty, they can still do this.
We know that squad rotation is going to be pivotal down the stretch of this very clustered season. Not everyone can play every game and all that jazz.
As I previously wrote though, United don’t exactly have game changers coming off the bench. What they do have is a plethora of options when it comes to holding a lead and seeing out a game. Going forward, they have to field their best XI at the start of the game. They have to push to hit teams quickly. If this United team can get a lead, they have options to bring on and manage the game. But if they don’t go in front early, then their starters are using energy chasing a game which can deplete them for the next game.
There are managerial lessons that have to be learned in order to succeed in post-COVID-19 football. If it takes Solskjaer more than one game to figure it out, that could be a disaster. Hopefully that one game won’t cost Manchester United too much.