Ever since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walked back into Carrington he has spoken of getting Manchester United back to playing like Manchester United should play. Over time, he’s further clarified what he wants: attacking football, being assertive on the ball, and having an arrogance on the pitch, especially in possession.
That desire aligns perfectly with what the fans want, especially after the strictly regimented Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho years. As is always predictable with 21st century fans, they soon became frustrated that the free flowing attacking football Solskjaer spoke about wasn’t being displayed on the pitch quick enough.
For Solskjaer, implementing a free flowing attacking system right away was impossible. Not just because he didn’t have the players he needed (he had some — but not all) but because he inherited a team that was god awful defensively.
In the modern game you simply can’t neglect defending. Trying to “outscore your opponents” doesn’t work in the long term. Liverpool did it to some success in the middle of the decade but didn’t make the leap to the next level until signing Virgil van Dijk and Allison to fix their defense.
Chelsea are currently trying to employ this strategy and look at where they are — trailing United on goal difference — and with the same problems that United had when it comes to beating teams that defend deep. Only Chelsea haven’t seemed to solve that problem the way United have.
Solskjaer knew that the first thing he needed to do was fix the defense. That’s not as simple as just buying Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Defending is something the entire team needs to do together. If you let attackers freely run at your back line it doesn’t matter how good your defenders are, you’re going to leak goals. You need to be organized.
The first half of the season saw Solskjaer molding this United team into an organized defensive unit. Every player on the field knew their role, the team moved as a collective, and as a result United have had a top three defense all season in terms of expected goals against. Most of their slip ups have come from individual errors.
All this came at the expense of United’s attack. They still relied too heavily on counter attacks. They struggled to break down teams that were defending deep, and they weren’t scoring enough to counteract the individual errors that were being made on the other end. Thus points were being dropped, and questions were being asked of Solskjaer.
That’s all changed recently, and it started with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes.
It’d be easy to say — and Solskjaer detractors have certainly tried — that United are just winning now because they have good players. That is fair to a certain extent, and Solskjaer would agree (last season he told Gary Neville that one of the keys to being a successful manager is “you have to have good players”), but it’s not 100 percent true.
When Bruno first arrived, stylistically there wasn’t much change to how United played. The team was always built around having a strong creative number 10 to facilitate the attack, but in the first half of the year the players they had in that position were Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard.
In a surprise to literally no one, as soon as United upgraded from them the results started coming.
While Bruno had some freedom to move around the pitch, the rest of the squad remained pretty static and were still sticking to their primary roles. This is reflected in United’s creative stats from when Bruno arrived until the lockdown. United were generating about the same amount of attackss, but with the upgrade at number 10, the finishing improved and the results followed suit. (The results were also aided by Nemanja Matić coming in to the midfield and shoring up the defense.)
Coming out of lockdown, Solskjaer went with team that had been his first choice XI in the first half of the year (plus Bruno) and, they looked like the team from the first half of the year. That was all Solskjaer needed to see. Out went Scott McTominay, Fred, and Daniel James, and in came Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matić, and Mason Greenwood. Since then they’ve become Solskjaer’s clear first choice XI.
With their first choice XI on the pitch, Solskjaer’s vision for the team has taken another step. They shift around the pitch, switching from a 4-2-3-1 out of possession to a back three and a front five in possession. Players interchange — any one of Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Bruno Fernandes can pop up on the left, right, in the hole, or as the central striker. They’ve become far more dynamic and the goals are flowing because of it.
But you can’t forget about the defense. Even Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams were defensively astute. Everyone had their defensive responsibilities. If someone pushed up, someone had to come back — even Wayne Rooney had to track all the way back.
It’s not just about knowing your assignment, and instinctively knowing to follow their run as Marcus Rashford does here.
It’s more than that. If you want to play free flowing football, your players have to know not just their own defensive responsibilities, but the defensive responsibilities of the other positions too in case they end up in that situation.
Take for example, Mason Greenwood ending up as the number 10 at one point against Bournemouth. He gets back as the number 10 should, and is able to start a break from there.
Take this situation later in the same game. Luke Shaw playing a 1-2 with Marcus Rashford and looking to get forward.
When Shaw gets forward, the central midfielder (in this case Fred) drops back to form a back three to cover for Shaw. Bruno is then level with Pogba as the two deep lying playmakers.
Defensively that essentially makes Fred the left-back, and since Bruno is your central midfielder, he has to cover Fred, in case something happens.
Well, watch what happens when United give away possession far earlier than they anticipated.
Not only does Bruno get himself into the midfield quickly, but he aborts helping Fred out when he sees Shaw is getting back and he can stay with his runner.
That’s the key to this whole system. You don’t just need really good players, you need really smart ones to. They have to have awareness of what’s happening at all times.
As soon as Victor Lindelöf starts pushing up, Nemanja Matić and Bruno Fernandes immediately fall into their new positions.
Or take this example against Chelsea. Fred pushes up to press Chelsea. As soon as Fernandes see this he falls backs into central midfield. Matić then slides over to the left side.
As soon as Bruno sees Fred is getting back into position he seamlessly shifts right back to the number 10 position.
No one has to look at each other, no one has to point, they just know. That’s the most important part. The players have to know that every single one of them is on the same page. If Harry Maguire is having to yell at players to drop into the right position, then it doesn’t work.
They have to know that if they make a run forward, someone is going to cover for them. If one player makes the slightest mistake, like not sticking with their man on a run, they can easily put their teammates in very vulnerable situations. And right now, United’s center backs aren’t good enough to handle vulnerable situations.
When Solskjaer arrived he promised free flowing attacking football. To get there he had to make sure the defense was put in place. He spent a year doing that and now the attack is starting to bloom.
It’s still a work in progress — some of the backups are still too far away from the level of the first XI — but United fans can be excited at the direction in which the team is heading.