Manchester United’s Carabao Cup semifinal against Manchester City Wednesday night will be the biggest test of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial career thus far.
That’s a pretty big statement considering Solskjaer got the better of Pep Guardiola three times last season and his record of three wins, one draw, and two losses against the blue half of Manchester is certainly nothing to scoff at.
This has nothing to do with that though. Nor does it have to do with Solskjaer trying to get over the proverbial hump of reaching a cup final after losing in three semifinals last season. Going out on Wednesday would certainly be disappointing, but it isn’t necessarily a failure. Football has an element of randomness and that’s certainly true in cup competitions. You need luck to be on your side.
No. This test is all about one thing. Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer show that he can innovate? Can he be bold enough to move away from the tried and true if need be? Can he be pragmatic enough to recognize what worked last time may not work again?
We know that Solskjaer can set his team up for the big game. We know that Solskjaer can go head-to-head with any manager. His record there speaks for itself.
Where Solskjaer struggles is making changes when things have previously worked. That’s when he gets exposed. It happened last year when he chose Scott McTominay and Fred in the first match after lockdown due to their success in the first City match back in December. In last season’s League Cup semifinal first leg, he tried to play the same way he did in United’s win at the Etihad, and Pep killed him. Solskjaer ran back the same tactics against Chelsea this season that he used three days prior in Paris. A week later he played a diamond against Arsenal because it worked against RB Leipzig, even though those are two very different teams.
United and City played out a dull 0-0 draw a month ago. That wasn’t by accident. Both teams were worried about defense first — for their own reasons — and played very conservative 4-2-3-1 formations. The game quickly became front four vs back six on both sides. The fact that each team only made one change in the final 20 minutes, despite the game being very much there for the taking, tells you both teams got what they came for.
For City, the conservative style came from Guardiola looking to address their weakness of their defense being exposed in transition. This was something that was preyed on by Leicester City earlier this year and then again by Tottenham Hotspur. Not to mention United beat them with this style last season — as did Mourinho’s Tottenham again.
Since that loss to Tottenham, City have for the most part been able to eliminate transitions before they even begin. They’ve become a much more boring side than Pep’s earlier iterations but it’s been effective. They’ve kept eight clean sheets in their last 11 matches.
The other thing is that City have quietly become much btter at stopping transitions from happening (even if it makes them boring sometimes). https://t.co/FvYIVF1Dzm— Grace Robertson ️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) January 3, 2021
For United, on the other hand, we know the story. Solskjaer needed to bolster the defense after losing 6-1 to Tottenham. He dropped Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba and turned to Scott McTominay and Fred. Defensively, it worked, but United lost a bit in their attack. In late November/early December he tried to open things up a bit, but a horrible defensive performance against West Ham and the debacle against RB Leipzig saw him turn right back to the #McFred pivot.
The McFred pivot certainly has its benefits, especially in matches where the Reds aren’t going to have a lot of the ball. They also play very well in the big matches. In the last two years when playing as a pair (4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 — not a diamond) against the ‘big six,’ the two have played against Liverpool, Chelsea (League Cup), Spurs, City, Spurs, Chelsea, and Manchester City winning three, drawing four, and losing none.
That’s certainly a commendable record and given that City is a “big game” where United probably won’t have much of the ball it falls into the category where they should be the first names on the team sheet.
This is your test, Ole Gunnar, because even though it looks like a match for McFred on paper, this is most certainly NOT a match to start McTominay and Fred in midfield.
McTominay and Fred are predictable and predictable makes it very easy to plan against you. They’re at their best when they just have to focus on bringing their high energy game to disrupting their opponents and clogging the midfield.
Once they win the ball back it’s a quick short pass to either one of the wide players or forwards so United can try and hit their opponents in transition.
McFred’s strength is being able to turn their industry and energy into being able to hit teams in transition. You know that, I know that, but unfortunately everyone else knows that too and has played accordingly.
When Frank Lampard’s Chelsea came to Old Trafford, the Blues played far more conservatively than you would have expected. They sat on Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford to prevent United from getting into transition, leaving McTominay and Fred in the middle of the pitch and challenging them to beat them.
Playing that conservatively practically nullified Chelsea’s chances of winning that day, but it made them highly unlikely to lose as well.
After United’s top performance in Paris, PSG returned to Old Trafford with a very similar game plan. Instead of playing the front foot football that they’re known for, they sat back and challenged McTominay and Fred to break them down, which they struggled with (grabbing an early goal certainly helped PSG here).
This all brings us back to Manchester City, a team that is very much focused on working to prevent transitions before they happen. At Old Trafford their plan was to take McTominay and Fred out of the game. They did this by keeping the ball on the outside.
Keep the ball away from McTominay and Fred.
By not attacking from the middle City were taking away the biggest strength that McTominay and Fred bring to the table.
City’s attacking map provides a great illustration of this. There’s nothing up the middle.
With United staying compact, Guardiola’s side focused on switching the ball back and forth.
By doing this you cause United’s entire defensive unit to constantly shift from right to left and vice versa. Do that enough, and eventually someone doesn’t move at the same speed as someone else, creating a crack for you to exploit.
With City focusing on keeping the ball wide, they were already in position to prevent the ball from getting to United’s dangerous players (Pogba, Fernandes, Rashford, Mason Greenwood) in the wide areas. When United did have the ball, McTominay and Fred don’t have the passing ability to quarterback play from the middle.
The result was a drab 0-0 draw with City finishing with an xG of 1.28 to United’s 0.58. United weren’t lucky to get a draw, but play that match multiple times and odds are United lose it far more often than they win it.
Ultimately that’s the big thing at stake on Wednesday. A month ago, a draw suited United. This time out they have to win, and the best chance of winning isn’t with the McFred pivot. If you throw them out there, City will do the same thing they did last time and thus completely neutralize United.
Allow me to quote USA Hockey coach Herb Brooks in the movie Miracle when describing to his team his plan for beating the Soviets.
“You don’t defend the middle. You attack the middle.”
I know it doesn’t seem like Solskjaer is ready to go for the possession game against the big teams just yet, but playing on the counter is just not going to work in this one. You need to have your passers on the pitch.
That means Paul Pogba. The Frenchman was poor at the beginning of the season when he was recovering from COVID but it’s time to stop thinking about what Pogba did (or didn’t do) two months ago and think about what he’s been doing for the past two months. Since the November international break Pogba has started six games and United have won five.
That same goes for Nemanja Matić. His rough September is in the past and his passing will be massively needed. Having said that, it’s probably still not safe to start them as a double pivot against City.
Defensively, Pogba is someone you want on the pitch for his ability to defend set pieces.
He’s also pretty good defensively, once he’s back there.
His issue is just, you know, actually tracking back...
That’s certainly not something to overlook, but you want Pogba on the pitch for everything else he does, so you’ll need a plan to accommodate for it. That’s why, me, a man who is staunchly anti-diamond formation, is about suggest United whip out the diamond for this match.
Approach this match exactly like you approached the RB Leipzig match at home. Pogba plays on the left of a three, which is his preferred role, with Matić and Fred providing cover behind him. The formation can shift between a diamond and a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba on the left wing (as United played against Villa). Don’t forget, Matić and Fred also put on a sublime performance against City in the derby last March.
The diamond will help clog up the middle and force City to keep pinging the ball around the outside. The extra midfielder will help cover any cracks that form while the defense is shifting from side to side. Bruno can drop in to help cover as well.
It’s not without risk. United don’t play the diamond particularly well but more importantly it doesn’t allow Bruno to play in his best position: the number 10 behind a lone striker. That position just doesn’t exist in this formation as the top of the diamond is playing much more of a false-9 role than a number 10 role. The difference in Bruno’s numbers when United play a 4-2-3-1 vs any other formation is pretty stark.
The reward still outweighs the risk. It’s not about moving to this system full time. It’s a one off because you’re not going to be able to play on the counter in this one. A 4-2-3-1 exposes United’s lack of right wing threat and Pogba’s propensity to not track back. United played a back three against Chelsea last season and against City. Bruno managed to pick assists on set pieces in each of them. Even if the system doesn’t suit him he finds a way to be productive.
And where did his only other assist outside of a 4-2-3-1 system come? You guessed it, the 5-0 win over RB Leipzig.
Don’t defend the middle. Attack the middle. Be brave, Ole. Be bold. Don’t fall back onto old tropes because it’s safe. It’s a one off, and you need to win. Go for it.