A few weeks ago The Busby Babe resident historian and Wayne Rooney stan Colin Damms wrote about how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s biggest need is to balance the minutes of Manchester United’s starters during the run in.
Project Restart was going to be a taxing period for everyone. Games were going to be coming thick and fast. Measures were put in place — including water breaks (which are basically now tactical breaks) — and five substitutions were allowed to try and help slow down the wear and tear of the players.
Coming out of lockdown was one of the rare times where every online Manchester United fan was on the same page. We all knew that United would be playing every 3 or 4 days. We knew that not everyone could play every game; players would need to be rested and squad players would need to answer the call.
We may not have agreed on who should play over who, or which game players should be rotated out from, but we all knew it had to happen.
Then the season started, and after one game, Solskjaer found his first choice XI. He’s run that XI back every league game since — the first time United have fielded an unchanged side in four straight league matches since the 90s.
[Update: As expected, Solskjaer named an unchanged XI for a fifth straight match, against Southampton.]
Those four unchanged sides have produced three 3-0 wins and a 5-2 win. But of course, that’s not good enough for some. Everyone always thinks they can do it better then the guy who’s actually in charge. Go to Twitter or any United message board and they will be flooded with comments like “Now’s the game to rest Matić so he doesn’t burn out” or “Solskjaer needs to rest Pogba so he doesn’t get overburdened.”
Let’s calm down for a second. United should field an unchanged XI against Southampton, for two reasons. The first is simple: it’s their best XI, and they need to win. The second is that the players aren’t actually wearing down — they’re not tired. At all.
Part of that is because these games are only being played at about 80 percent intensity. At any given time you’re likely to see situations like this.
Not exactly going all out here.
But most of all, it’s because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is managing this team’s minutes to perfection.
Let’s start here. The games in Project Restart are coming thick and fast, but how fast is a bit overblown. That’s probably there are Premier League games scheduled on almost every day of the week, but in reality most teams are basically playing a weekend game followed by a midweek game and then another weekend game. This is a big deal for clubs like Crystal Palace or West Ham, but a club like United who are still in the Europa League and went to the semifinals of the League Cup have been playing this sort of schedule all year.
On top of that, United’s Project Restart schedule has been very favorable. They opened up on Friday June 19th, the earliest day of the game week. They didn’t play again until the following Wednesday — giving them four full days of recovery. Their opponent that day was Sheffield United, who were playing their third game in eight days.
July 13th will be the 24th day of Project Restart and United will play in their seventh game. That’s a game once every 3.43 days. Not bad.
The past week has been even better for United. They played Bournemouth on a Saturday, then didn’t play again until Thursday evening, a five day break. That’s as close to a full week off as you’ll ever get in football. Their opponents on Thursday, Aston Villa, had to play again on Sunday, while United play Monday. Three games in nine days. Not bad at all.
These players are used to this kind of schedule. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Fred were all playing Europa League and Premier League fixtures twice a week in November. Paul Pogba has been playing in the Champions League for years.
Solskjaer is an advocate of data, especially GPS data, when it comes to running and recovery. He knows how much he can push his players and when his players need a break and the proof is in the data.
On Saturday, The Athletic ran an article that studied what effect, if any, empty stadiums were having on matches. Unlike in Germany, the lack of fans wasn’t taking away any home field advantage in the Premier League, but the lack of atmosphere was certainly affecting the intensity in matches, specifically with the amount of goals that are being scored.
Prior to Gameweek 35 kicking off on Saturday, there had been 52 games played in the Premier League. A small sample by all accounts.
Since 2012-13, the amount of goals scored per game has fluctuated from a low of 2.57 per game in 2014-15 to a high of 2.82 last season. Since the restart the amount of goals per game has dropped to 2.56, the lowest it’s been in that time.
The reason for that drop has been a complete drop in first half goals. From 2012-13 to 2016-17 first half goals were relatively stable, varying between 1.2 to 1.22 per game. Since the restart, that has dropped to 1.12. Since 2012-13, 31 percent of games have been 0-0 at halftime. Since the restart, 37 percent have gone to halftime scoreless.
Why is this the case?
A possible reason could very well be that the lack of atmosphere makes it harder for the players to get themselves juiced up for the match. That leads to sluggish first halves as the players play themselves into the match.
What does this have to do with Manchester United?
United are the outliers in all of this. While scoring is down across the league, United are going in the opposite direction. Since lockdown, matches involving Manchester United have an average of 3.6 goals. United games feature 2.2 goals scored in the first half.
United are besting the rest of the league’s numbers all by themselves. They’re scoring 3.6 goals per game, 3.0 non penalty goals per game, and 1.8 goals per first half. Every game they’ve played has featured a goal scored in the first half, and United have scored first half goals in every game where Solskjaer has started the good players.
This is undoubtedly impacted by the return of players like Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, as well as the quality of opponents faced, but every team in the league is nearly fully fit. Only Manchester City seems to be getting after opponents as early as United do.
For the rest of the league, goals tick back up in the second half thanks to the introduction of fresh legs being able to run at tired legs. Once again United go in the opposite direction here. Only one goal has been scored in a United match this season after Solskjaer has made his first wave of substitutions — and that came against Tottenham, which of course was the game where Ole was bringing on his better players.
When changing players United remain a defensive fortress, and while the Reds keep attacking once changes are made, the lack of goals is just another example of the drop in quality in the squad beyond the first 11 or 12 players.
United are able to get out to great starts so consistently because they are fitter than their opponents. That’s due to how well Solskjaer has managed each player’s minutes in the circumstances, and his utilization of the five substitution rule.
Just two games into the restart, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made history when he became the first Premier League manager to make a quintuple substitution.
Solskjaer wasn’t doing this for historical reasons, but rather to balance the minutes of his squad. Since the restart Harry Maguire is the only outfield player to have played every minute for United. Other than Luke Shaw, every single player has either been subbed off the pitch or started on the bench at least two times (Shaw has only been subbed off once).
In previous months, an unchanged XI five games in a row would have been taxing on the players. These days, Solskjaer is rarely letting a player complete 90 minutes in back to back games.
Furthermore, it’s not just that Solskjaer is taking advantage of this rule, it’s that so many other teams aren’t. Since the five substitution rule was put into place, only Manchester United and Liverpool have used all five substitutions in every match.
If we include the FA Cup match against Norwich, United actually average 5.16 subs per game given that they made six substitutions in that match.
United head into their matches with their players fresher than their opponents. Only five of their outfield players will have played 90 minutes in the previous four days leading up to a match. In all likelihood, no more than three will have played 120 minutes in the previous seven days. And because so many teams aren’t utilizing the available subs, the odds are United’s opponents on any given matchday are carrying a lot more miles on their legs.
So don’t worry about Solskjaer not making changes for Southampton. I can see a few changes being made for Crystal Palace on Thursday ahead of the FA Cup semifinal on Sunday instead.
And don’t worry about Nemanja Matić and his legs. In the past he has started wearing out after playing 90 minutes twice a week for three straight months with no break. It hasn’t even been a month yet and he’s only played 90 minutes three times. His minutes are being managed.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proven to have this under control.