The United faithful like nothing more than a player covering every blade of grass. The start to the 2021/22 season has seen this idea take its maximalist form. The players are being asked to cover far too much grass. It took a 6-1 shellacking from Jose Mourinho’s Spurs for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to address this last season.
The lack of pre-season was a very real concern last season but it was a fairly flimsy excuse since the change in fortunes came from a more obvious change in personnel than pre-match planning. The ‘McFred’ pivot was reinstated, along with the additions of Juan Mata and Daniel James in the forward line.
Pep Guardiola’s side struggled for far longer last season before he switched things up for his own side. The switch led to a championship-winning run for his side. Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s side needed that switch before the international break because United now have an ominous run of fixtures till the 1st of December.
Matters could’ve been far worse had the likes of Callum Wilson, Michail Antonio, Gerard Moreno, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin been available for some of the fixtures that United have played so far.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unruffled calm has helped him circumvent many a Stygian passage since getting the big job. Even the industrious McFred midfield isn’t helping placate the frenzied nature of United’s performances at the moment. He can no longer call on Daniel James and Juan Mata to help defend the chasms that have been left for the McFred duo to clean up either.
As Nathan Shelley of Ted Lasso fame succinctly puts it, United might be forced to ‘park the bus.’
A case for parking the bus
Around the time Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, a certain Dutchman was going through a Space Odyssey of his own.
Like the best communicators, Johan Cruyff was able to able to explain complex ideas in the simplest manner.
Here’s an excerpt from Cruyff’s interview before the 2008 Euros:
In Cruyff’s world, you shouldn’t be covering every blade of grass.
As Simon Kuper alludes to in his latest book The Barcelona Complex, these ideas have been dispersed around the world now. Most of the top European clubs today play some variant of Cruffyian football and some managers have even modernized it.
Those who don’t follow this ideal have found success by reacting to this idea. This is done by constricting that space with methods of high-pressing or parking the bus. The idea around manipulation and space is still key, regardless of the approach to football.
This brings us to the current Manchester United. Manchester United have two glaring issues that make it nigh on impossible to play an expansive style or press from the front.
United’s two highest earners and the pillars on the two ends of the pitch that are supposed to hold it all together don’t really help start attacks from the back or defend from the front. They’ve also been the two best performers this season and seem to be the only players capable of extinguishing the fires. The issue is that they might be partly responsible for starting the fires.
It isn’t just the top teams now, even the likes of Brentford, Brighton, and Leeds in the Premier League use their goalkeeper as the 11th outfield player and their forwards as the first line of defence.
David De Gea’s made a fine start to this season and shown signs of why he was United’s most important player for half a decade but this isn’t a great sign if United want to be a truly expansive side.
There are other reasons why United can’t be a truly expansive side. As Cruyff mentions in the same interview, playing two midfielders for their ability to break up play as opposed to their ability in possession is the clearest indication of a reactive style.
Breaking up play will be welcome by most Reds if it was done higher up the pitch but United carry a lot of passengers in the forward areas and that’s only been exacerbated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival. The Athletic’s Carl Anka also noted to the TBB staff in a podcast during the summer that United don’t really play offside traps unless Dean Henderson’s on the pitch.
A truly well-functioning and expansive style becomes a pipe dream and parking the bus becomes the default tactic.
But what about attack, attack, attack and playing the Busby Way?
That was one of Ernest Mangnall’s favourite dictums. For those unfamiliar, he’s the only manager other than Busby and Ferguson to have won the league with Manchester United –. Who’s to say that isn’t the United Way?
There’s no real shame in getting results by dropping into your own half and playing on the counter. The second-leg in Paris that seemed to have cemented Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s transition from caretaker to permanent boss was won playing in this fashion.
In other big game displays, Solskjaer’s sides have often taken an aggressive but reactive approach: man-marking City’s popular advanced 8s, getting someone to do a similar job on Chelsea’s Jorginho and forcing Liverpool’s full-backs into their own half.
They could go about with a conservative set-up in myriad ways: a compact 4-4-2, a back 3 formation (definitely not in the way it’ll be served up by Bergamo’s finest in a week’s time), or the 4-2-3-1 that Solskjaer already employs with more defensive personnel in the forward line.
United will face some of these opponents in the coming months. They’ll also be facing City and Liverpool at home, where ceding territory after two and a half seasons in charge might meet some groans from a match-going public that – as United We Stand editor Andy Mitten recently suggested – are having doubts. This sort of lineup will also see groans from some of the United superstars who’ll have to sit on the bench.
But the set-up might not just be necessary for these three games. Atalanta, Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal, and Villarreal have enough weapons at their disposal to land more fatal blows. The conservative set-up might be needed against all these sides bar Spurs. Marcus Rashford should also be back just in time for these fixtures, a player whose attributes are best-suited to playing on the counter.
The issue here is obvious. The cautious approach was something Solsjkaer’s predecessors were derided for and will be a de facto admission from the Norwegian that it’s his forte. The football under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s definitely far more palatable than his predecessors even though silverware has eluded him.
Unlike Louis van Gaal, Solskjaer doesn’t hamper the painters in his atelier by offering them limited shades of paint. He won’t make an example of them by seizing their paintbrush as some form of mind game like the cantankerous Jose Mourinho. But he isn’t competing with the former heads of the workshop.
To his credit, he has proven that his colony of artists can be a match against rival workshops – headed by some modern masters — in a one-off.
Solskajer’s brought some joy back. He lets his artists get on with their passion and has opened up the archives that were locked under the former heads for inspiration. However, the newfound freedom often leaves his painters a little short on the day of the exhibition – when a collective theme might be more important than any individual painting.
He’s at a very important crossroads. If he gets results and there’s no guarantee he will, it’s unlikely to come through any real artistry. If he lets the shackles lose, the results are almost certainly not going to follow. One of them will have to give in the coming months. The hope is that it isn’t both.