Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got a rare mulligan on Sunday.
In matches against Manchester United’s top six rivals this season the Norwegian has typically opted for a more conservative starting XI with a midfield pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred, shunting talisman Paul Pogba out onto the wings. It’s resulted in United picking up a trio of 0-0 draws but also a failure to provide any entertainment.
Those draws are all respectable results in the league, but one week after a particularly drab draw at Anfield that left United feeling like they could have had more, Solskjaer now had an opportunity to immediately change the narrative as United took on Liverpool in the FA Cup.
The situation was perfect for Solskjaer. A bolder selection gives United the chance to really see where they stand in relation to the big boys. If it works, maybe he has a new way of approaching the big games. If it doesn’t, it’s a reality check but in a season where you’re facing a log jam of matches, not having extra cup matches isn’t the worst thing in the world.
You knew things would be different this time around the second the team sheets were released. Paul Pogba was moving back to the middle of the pitch where he could have the biggest impact on the match. He’d be partnered by Scott McTominay and in the extremely limited minutes these two have paired in United’s midfield this season, the goals have come flying in on both ends, indicating we’d probably see some goals in this one.
Solskjaer made three other changes to the XI that faced Liverpool a week earlier. Those changes weren’t just about getting players rest but rather had deliberate tactical reasoning behind them as well. United overloaded their left side with their ball progressors.
To compensate for playing three players on the right who don’t contribute much to buildup play United moved Marcus Rashford — who received a surprise start at center forward at Anfield — back to the left side. From there they were going to focus their buildup play on the left side with Rashford exploiting the space that was vacated by right back Trent Alexander-Arnold when he pushes forward.
United were going to do that early and often. Either letting Rashford go do his thing...
...Or by taking it down the left side and then moving it across the pitch with long switches to get Mason Greenwood involved.
Or anyone else.
They were rewarded for this.
And with Alexander-Arnold constantly pushing up, Rashford would get mismatches. In the second half Liverpool’s right-back is forward for a throw in. United pressure the ball and when they win it back, Rashford is running at young center-back Rhys Williams, a matchup United would gladly take.
Rashford had a field day on the left side and Liverpool had few answers to him. Holding Alexander-Arnold back would have left them devoid of their most important creator on the other end.
Paul Pogba’s return to the middle gave United a much better presence in the middle of the pitch. The worry with Pogba in the middle is his defense, but once again he put in a defensive shift — as he typically does against big teams — with his fantastic defensive effort starting the sequence that lead to United’s first goal.
As expected, the game was far more open with United much the better side in the first half. But when all was said and done after an hour the score was still level at two. The good news for United was that Liverpool’s goals weren’t a result of United trying to go toe to toe with them and being outmatched, but rather that they were two moments where United made simple mistakes and Liverpool made them pay.
Defensively, last week United played much more of a 4-4-2 which left Thiago with acres of space to operate between the lines. This week they were much more determined to keep their shape, allowing Donny van de Beek to move around and keep a check on the Spanish midfielder and prevent Liverpool from getting players between the lines.
The first goal was a result of a situation where Liverpool manage to stretch United out. Cavani and Van de Beek get caught up high and suddenly United are back in that 4-4-2.
That slight shift leaves Gini Wijnaldum in tons of space and gives Liverpool a chance to get three players into dangerous positions between the lines.
The pass to Roberto Firmino is too easy but when he gets the ball United are somewhat recovered.
Firmino gets the ball and takes a touch back towards his own goal. Oddly, McTominay doesn’t pressure him, allowing him to easily turn towards United’s goal. And with United still holding a 4-4-2, Mohamed Salah makes a run and it’s way too easy for Firmino to pick him out.
For the second goal, another mistake. United are playing out from the back, and Harry Maguire picks out Edinson Cavani with a good pass. Cavani tries a one touch pass to McTominay who’s making a forward run, but never spots James Milner. Milner intercepts and moves quickly to take advantage of United’s midfield being caught out. United could never recover.
With 25 minutes to go and the match level Solskjaer was able to introduce Bruno Fernandes, who didn’t take long to tilt the match in United’s favor.
The plan was executed to perfection. Sure, in an ideal world Bruno wouldn’t have had to play at all but if you can defeat Liverpool with Fernandes only playing for 25 minutes, that’s far better than him having to play the full 90. It’s a really good sign for United going forward.
That’s what this match was. A potential really good sign for United going forward. After the game Solskjaer said as much.
“It’s a good feeling to play on our terms. We’ve had some good results with a diamond or 3-5-2, different systems to nullify opponents, but to win today with a positive selection & in the way we see our team, that’s a statement to ourselves.”
But we’ve already seen time and time again that what Solskjaer says in his press conferences and what he actually does don’t always match up. There’s every chance that the next time United face one of their top four rivals Solskjaer errs on the side of caution again.
But let’s hope not. Because this was a statement. United can put out their team and play their way against the big boys and come out on top. Solskjaer was rewarded for his bold(er) selection on Sunday. Let’s hope we see more of it.