Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had only one thing on his mind Saturday. Getting a clean sheet. It was obvious from the way he set the team up, the way they played, and his substitutions. With Manchester United being an unorganized mess over the past few games, it’s not hard to understand why.
We’ve seen Solskjaer do this before. Last season after losing 6-1 to Tottenham, he dropped Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood in favor of the harder working and much more positionally disciplined quartet of Scott McTominay, Fred, Daniel James, and Juan Mata. United came within a Luke Shaw own goal of keeping a clean sheet.
A week later he set the same team upon Chelsea but had his fullbacks play extremely conservative. Given how long it took him to introduce players like Pogba, Edinson Cavani, and Greenwood onto the pitch it was clear the priority was maintaining a clean sheet. Nicking a win was secondary.
We’ve also seen Solskjaer do something similar against Tottenham. When he first took over United only kept one clean sheet in his first four matches, all of which were against bottom half clubs. A trip to Tottenham would be this teams first real test.
Solskjaer showed up to Wembley Stadium and switched things up deploying a 4-4-2 against Tottenham.
United were organized and compact, giving Spurs very little and going 1-0 on a counter attack. In the second half they switched to a 4-2-3-1, got stuck in, and defended very deep, welcoming pressure from Tottenham. They were lucky to win that match thanks to a superstar performance from David de Gea.
A few weeks later United went to the Emirates in the FA Cup and did the same thing. They sat deep, were outshot 13-8, but ran away 3-1 winners thanks to being lethal on the counter attack.
Both matches were very Jose Mourinho but they were also Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The truth has always been that Solskjaer is far more like Mourinho than anyone has really wanted to admit. Just rather than brooding and throwing his players under the bus, he’s much more upbeat and treats his players well so they all like him. The other difference is Solskjaer always spoke of playing ‘front foot attacking football’ and ‘the United way’ even though that really wasn’t his style on the pitch. It rubbed many people the wrong way that he said one thing but kept doing the other.
Saturday’s match Solskjaer went back to his basics. He packed it in, got the team organized, and looked to hit Spurs on the counter attack. In this case he went even more extreme, dropping an attacker and going with a back three which played more like a back five.
Saturday showed that Solskjaer knows how to set up an organized defensive team. We know this because we’ve seen him do it countless times. He’s done it twice at the Park de Prince, he’s done it with tremendous success in several Manchester Derbys, and his team was incredibly organized in their 0-0 draw at Anfield last season. The question really is why he has’t been able to do that this season, or why he’s just insisted and doubled down on playing a more open style this season when it’s never really been his style?
Saturday also showed us that the players haven’t quit on Solskjaer and aren’t tuning him out. There was a clear plan and the players knew exactly what they were supposed to do. A good example of this is when Fred steps out here and Cavani falls in to cover for him. When Fred comes back Cavani quickly pushes back up.
United were organized and maintained their shape throughout the match. They clogged up the middle and gave Spurs nothing, holding the North London side to just 0.19 xG from open play.
It was the performance and result that Solskjaer desperately needed but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly good. United were certainly much better than in recent games and it was easily their best defensive performance since Southampton, but whereas the aforementioned win against Tottenham came because of the superb play of De Gea, Saturday was more thanks to Tottenham just being really bad. After getting a 1-0 lead at halftime United essentially closed up shop in the second half, getting just two shots in the second half (both goals). Yet the result was never really in peril because Spurs were so toothless.
Given all that, it’s entirely fair to wonder if this was simply a one off or a sign of things to come? Is this something United can build on? Is this a system they can play long term?
Given that it was such a defensive team picked with little creativity, it was no surprise that United didn’t create much. In the first half United managed eight shots for an xG of just 0.37 (0.05 xG per shot). They weren’t designed to have possession and therefore their attacks were a series of long hopeful quick strikes.
And quick one off attacks that weren’t very threatening.
Just like last season against PSG the tactical switch meant that whenever United did get forward, they always looked one attacking player short. Aaron Wan-Bissaka did a good job getting involved offensively, but even when he linked well with Cavani to break forward, it wasn’t uncommon for United to not have anyone forward to provide him with support.
The system worked with the 11 players Solskjaer picked on Saturday but beyond that there are certainly questions. Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot might be best as wingbacks, but on Saturday United were much more in a back five with their “wing backs” having to defend than having attacking wing backs higher up the pitch.
We know that Paul Pogba can be the furthest forward midfielder in a three and therefore can step in to provide Bruno Fernandes with some much needed rest that he’ll likely never get. Donny van de Beek can play in a three, but he’s not the on ball presence that Bruno or Pogba are so it’s hard to see that working.
That’s where things get dicy as it’s exactly what made the system work that makes it not so sustainable. It’s well known that Cristiano Ronaldo’s defensive work rate is nothing and in order to really get the best from him you need to play him next to someone who does a lot of the things that he doesn’t do. At United he had Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez doing that, while at Real Madrid he had Karim Benzema.
On Saturday he had Edinson Cavani who was really the glue that made everything work. Cavani formed a strike partnership with Ronaldo up top, but out of possession he was often just slightly dropping back to form a diamond in the midfield, giving United just a little more bite in that area of the pitch.
That’s easy to do and maintain this when things are high up the pitch, but when Spurs would get the ball deep, you’d often see Cavani getting all the way back to continue to provide his support.
This wasn’t just a one off as Cavani was doing this all game.
Cavani’s presence was a huge reason United were so difficult for Spurs to break down. It also requires A LOT of running from Cavani, which brings into question how sustainable this can be. Cavani is 34 years old and already had to have his minutes managed last season. He rarely started consecutive matches and when he did, a trip to the sidelines usually wasn’t far behind.
To suddenly expect Cavani to be able to give you more than that this season would be incredibly naive and replacing him isn’t so simple.
United have had success with a back three under Solskjaer before, but seemed to bin the formation after their 3-2 loss to RB Leipzig in the Champions League last year. Other than the win at PSG - where United changed formations after an hour - all their big wins with the back three had one thing in common, Dan James starting as part of the front two.
This provided the team with the balance of having one player staying high as an outlet and counter attacker, while James provided the work rate and dropped into midfield to help out and make things difficult. Cavani provided the same of defensive energy.
In Leipzig United started Greenwood and Rashford up top, neither of whom are known for their defensive workrate. Neither dropped back into midfield and when Bruno Fernandes wasn’t dropping either, it was Luke Shaw pushing up to give United that extra body there.
In the home match against Leipzig United played a 4-4-2 diamond, constantly clogging the middle with three or four bodies. In the away match, their lack of bodies in the middle was a major factor in them going 2-0 down and not being able to mount any attacks the other way to get back in it.
The workrate that Cavani - and previously James - provided is necessary to making the system work and means the two strikers have vastly different roles. This was consistent with how Solskjaer used his substitutions on Saturday.
Marcus Rashford - who is probably United’s best defensive wide forward not because he’s good defensively but because he’s not Martial or Greenwood - replaced Ronaldo to take the “stay high and be a counter attacker” position. When it was time for Edinson Cavani to come off he was replaced by Jesse Lingard, an “attacking player” who isn’t so much known for his attacking as he is for his defensive work rate.
The difference in the forward roles means it’s no longer just trying to fit Ronaldo, Cavani, Rashford, Greenwood, Sancho, and Martial into two spots.
Now you have “striker one” that fits the skill sets of Ronaldo, Rashford, Greenwood, and Martial, while striker two is essentially just Cavani and maybe Lingard? It’s still unclear where Sancho would fit here, but there’s a serious risk of the system falling apart if you select two players from the striker one pool.
For all the talk about Antonio Conte and him playing a back three had he become United manager, Solskjaer’s tactics on Saturday were ironically very Zinedine Zidane in Europe. In his later years at Real Madrid, Zidane would typically shift Ronaldo more central to play in a front two with Benzema. Behind him Gareth Bale would be dropped in favor of Isco or a more industrious midfielder. The idea was clear, pack it in, be very difficult to break down, don’t concede, and rely on Ronaldo being so extraordinary that he’d be able to get you through himself.
That’s basically what Solskjaer did in this game and there are very few players in the world that can score this goal.
On Saturday Solskjaer hoped that Ronaldo and Cavani were special enough to get him a goal, but the priority was a clean sheet. His substitutions only reinforced that. Bruno made way for Matic to provide even more stability in midfield. Ronaldo was replaced by Rashford - another striker from the “striker one” pool - whereas Cavani was replaced by the hard working Lingard. Like for like, keep the shape, see this out.
It worked on Saturday but sticking with it consistently may just further highlight the imbalances in the squad and it’ll certainly lead to more questions if we’re really getting the best from the squad.
The three points are nice, but this one seems far more like a one-off than a sign United have turned a corner.