Ole Gunnar Solskjaer began his reign as Manchester United manager by deploying a 4-3-3 with Marcus Rashford as the center forward flanked by Anthony Martial on the left and Jesse Lingard on the right. It had extraordinary early success and he stuck with it until injuries forced him to often switch to a midfield diamond or other two up top formations.
At the start of his first full season Solskjaer switched his primary formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Martial now playing down the middle with Rashford playing off the left. I’ve often speculated that while this “switch” would be good for Rashford, it was really about Anthony Martial.
While United were enjoying a lot of success during Solskjaer’s initial stint as a caretaker manager, Anthony Martial was not. The Frenchman only scored two goals once Solskjaer came in as manager. That’s a problem considering that shortly after Solskjaer came in, Martial signed a five-year contract extension, making it kind of important that Solskjaer got Martial going. Since Martial was the club’s best finisher when he got into the middle of the box in front of goal, moving him centrally made sense — put him in the middle and he’ll get more chances in the middle, and thus score more goals. Hard to argue with the results in year one.
But perhaps there was more to it then that. Perhaps Solskjaer saw something that was happening around football and was already looking for ways to exploit it?
While Solskjaer was settling in at Old Trafford, Liverpool were in the midst of making a second consecutive Champions League final (this time coming out victorious) and charging to a second place finish in the Premier League. They did that behind a superb front three, as well as the emergence of right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool were using their fullbacks like no one ever had before in the Premier League. Instead of having creativity be supplied by their midfield, their fullbacks would bomb forward into space to be the focal points of Liverpool’s creativity.
Alexander-Arnold broke in in the second half of the 2017-18 season helping Liverpool reach the Champions League final. Alexander-Arnold and left-back Andy Robertson finished the 2018-19 Premier League campaign with 12 and 11 assists respectively — easily records for fullbacks. A year later they upped that total to 13 and 12.
Football is a copycat sport and teams quickly wanted to try and imitate what Liverpool were doing with their fullbacks. Of course, most teams don’t have the personnel that Liverpool have and couldn’t commit to doing this with both fullbacks (either because they already had some creativity in midfield or just because they weren’t good enough) so they could only really send one fullback forward freely.
Since left sided attackers are aplenty in the Premier League and right wingers are rare, most teams have chosen to make their right back the one who gets forward. (United have left sided attackers but have still chosen to send their left-back forward far more often than their right back).
The days of the right-back position being where you hid the weakest player on your team are gone. These days there’s much more value being put on players who can provide attacking contributions from the position.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is the best defensive right back in England — and possibly Europe — but he’s can’t even get a look in from England manager Gareth Southgate. Wan-Bissaka is currently around fifth in the England pecking order, behind the likes of Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, and Reece James, all players who are much more known for their ability to get forward rather than ability, or lack of, in defense.
Once something becomes the norm the focus naturally shifts first to how to stop a given tactic and then on how to exploit it. Eventually, teams weren’t just going to be able to handle your right-back being a much more creative outlet, but punish you for it as well.
Over the past month and five days Michael Cox has written the exact same article three times about three different matches. The first was about how Arsenal used long diagonal balls to exploit the space behind Tottenham’s right-back in the North London Derby. The next one came two weeks ago and was focused on how Zidane’s strategy of playing long balls into the space vacated by Alexander-Arnold helped Real Madrid thoroughly defeat Liverpool. This week he wrote about “How Chelsea’s long passes to the left helped Tuchel get the better of Guardiola’s Manchester City.”
Long diagonal balls attacking the space vacated by your attacking right-back. That is apparently the “new” tactic managers are using to combat a team’s attacking fullback.
That might be new for them, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been doing it for two years now.
There might be questions about whether Anthony Martial is a striker or a winger but one thing for sure is on the wing he doesn’t make those runs in behind that Marcus Rashford does. By moving him to the middle, Solskjaer would hope to get the benefits of Martial getting more chances in front, but now also had someone who could exploit the space in behind a right-back.
That was clear on the first day of the season.
The pass didn’t necessarily have to be from the midfield. If your right-back was going to venture forward, Rashford — and United — were looking to exploit you.
United were pretty good at attacking these spaces last season though not often directly. They’d often use Martial as a false-9 to create some of these spaces in behind, but if a team sent their full back up the pitch United became dangerous.
This season it’s been more of the same. Sometimes it’s a counter attack, sometimes it’s a pass from deep, and sometimes it’s a pass from up front. If your fullbacks push up, Rashford is going to look to get behind them.
Rashford is always looking to exploit the space. If he sees it, he’s making the run. Sometimes he just misses the timing — only Jamie Vardy, Sadio Mane, and Ollie Watkins have been flagged offside more than Rashford.
Against Liverpool this year United put Rashford up top in a 4-4-2 to try and get in behind. Rashford toed the offside line the way all good strikers do, but he struggled to get in behind because he was often matched up against centerbacks who knew he was trying to do this.
When the two teams met in the FA Cup a week later, Rashford was back on the left side and would you look at what happened...
It’s not a coincidence that Rashford has tended to disappear against teams that play low blocks. Teams that play low blocks don’t send their fullbacks aggressively forward and thus there isn’t space in behind for Rashford to exploit.
Rashford has scored 20 goals in all competitions this season and think about how many of them have come from him being played behind the defense: Brighton (A), Newcastle (A), West Ham (A), his first against Sheffield United (A) (the second was a counter attack), Wolves (H), Liverpool (FA Cup), Real Sociedad (A), Granada (A), even his goal against Luton Town town came from a ball over the top.
This goal against Granada is almost identical to his first goal against Sheffield United.
His home goal against deep block Newcastle this season came when Rashford was able to create space in behind, by beating the fullback on the dribble. It’s also how he set up Mason Greenwood’s opener against Burnley. Create space when it isn’t there.
When Rashford has moved out to the right this season that he’s scored the other types of goals — his shots from just outside the box vs PSG home and away, drifting into the middle to get on the end of a Mason Greenwood cutback against Southampton — but he’s also out there to exploit space. When Rashford came on against RB Leipzig he played on the right as a means of exploiting an area that Leipzig were leaving uncovered. It worked pretty well.
Spurs play with two attack minded fullbacks but left-back Sergio Reguilon is far more of the ‘creative’ option who freely gets forward while right back Serge Aurier is more of the ‘support’ full back, only getting forward once play has built up and he’s providing an outlet (similar to Aaron Wan-Bissaka). In response to that Solskjaer deployed Rashford primarily on the right, in an attempt to attack the space behind Reguilon.
Solskjaer’s attack is built around the philosophy of ‘manipulate the space’ and ‘work the space,’ as a winger Rashford is always looking to run in behind. Anthony Martial doesn’t do that. Perhaps that’s why United are such a potent team regardless of whether Martial (2.01 goals per game) or Edinson Cavani (1.89 goals per game) are lined up at center forward, but they become quite impotent when Martial is sent out onto the left wing.
Maybe there was more to Ole moving Martial back to the middle at the start of the 2019-20 season than just getting the best out of Martial. Perhaps Solskjaer saw the success of Liverpool’s system, realized teams were going to copy it (after all, he’s copied parts of it himself), and began working on ways to exploit it. Put someone out there who will make your fullback pay for getting forward.
There’s a non-zero chance Solskjaer saw where things were headed and got out ahead of it. There’s also a non-zero chance that I’m giving him way too much credit here. Who really cares though? The super league is dead, Ed Woodward is gone. Nothing else matters.