Ahead of Sunday’s game against Chelsea on the opening day of Manchester United’s season, Ian Scullian and Mike Shepherd from ManUtdTactics have discussed the football we should expect to see from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this campaign in the RoM charity season preview.
While most United fans will not enjoy looking back at the deeply disappointing and frustrating 2018-19 season, it is a very necessary exercise for two reasons. Firstly because we need to be honest with ourselves about where we are and secondly it can provide some clues about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking ahead.
Last season easily splits into three clear phases. The first phase was the period under Jose Mourinho, the second and third under Solskjaer pre and post our success in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 in Paris. This is the most obvious breakdown because each of these phases had clear and very different characteristics.
The first phase was dominated by Mourinho’s negative mood, which over time seemed to infect the mind-set of the squad to the point where many of them appeared disaffected. One increasingly felt that as a response to his (almost certainly fair) view that the club had not backed him in the summer transfer window, Jose effectively downed tools and invited the sack. United’s football through this period was stale, negative and directionless, with the manager and many of the players looking disinterested; the players seemed to lose faith in the manager and the manager in the players. His dismissal was inevitable.
Enter Solskjaer in December, initially as a caretaker to the season’s end. The new manager brought an immediate bounce. Suddenly the players had energy, Solskjaer’s optimism and positivity seemed to give everyone – staff, players and fans – a lift and that change of mood brought instant results.
At the time many neutral observers pointed to a run of winnable games to temper fans’ enthusiasm and, whilst that was a fair point, it ignored the fact that the club had wisely removed Jose at this specific point in time to give the new man the opportunity to make the most of a run of games against teams in the bottom half of the table. He did make the most of them, with United going on an eight game winning run. This, of course, built momentum and confidence for tougher games to come, so that this run of better results was maintained even when United came up against more difficult opposition.
But what did he change tactically? This period of the season and the changes made by Ole probably gives us the best clues as to what we can expect as we move forward.
Perhaps the biggest change was the aforementioned positivity, but not just in terms of mood but also in deeds. After winning the ball, players were encouraged to get their heads up and look to pass it forward as a first option, rather than (as often seemed to be the case under Mourinho) sideways, or even back.
Mourinho liked to control games. His methods have been famously associated with the theory of tactical periodization, which splits play into a series of phases. One of those phases is the one in which you win the ball and momentarily the opposition is not formed up in its defensive shape. Latterly, though, the focus during this phase was to make sure that, having won the ball, we didn’t give it straight back to our opponents, which would potentially leave ourselves vulnerable. That had translated into those sideways or backwards passes as players took the safe option. This meant, of course, that United did not exploit that moment in the game when opponents were at their most vulnerable. Instead we allowed them time to reform their defensive lines. United kept the ball but then found it far harder to break teams down, resulting in long periods where they failed to create clear-cut, meaningful chances.
Ole changed this by encouraging players to make early forward passes. This meant that forward players made runs because they were suddenly now more confident that the ball would come. Martial and Rashford benefitted greatly from this and both had purple patches. Ole’s mantra at the time was: don’t worry if you lose the ball by making a forward pass or by running at people with the ball, we will just win it back.
The other big change that Ole encouraged was in the full-back play. Now full-backs were encouraged to go forward and to run beyond the midfield. Under Jose, full-backs did get forward but there seemed to be a limit to the point that they were allowed to run. Shaw, for example, would rarely run beyond Martial or cross the ball, instead choosing to recycle possession in-field to the centre-backs or deep midfield players.
Ole didn’t really change the team shape significantly, although latterly he did set up in different shapes for specific games against specific opponents. The shape was less important than the general approach.
To summarise then, the key changes were that players were encouraged to be positive in playing the ball forward earlier and quickly and to take risks; full-backs were encouraged to get forward and support the attack rather than support the midfield; forwards were encouraged to run in behind and the team was asked to play at a higher tempo when in possession.
There was one significant issue through. All this positivity did get results for a while and that was in part because United’s opponents did keep giving the ball back. To some extent the critics were right when they identified that United were helped mid-season by a run of games against lesser opponents and it should also be said that initially United’s new approach probably caught a few teams by surprise.
We pointed out that in those early games United were giving the ball away far too often; if this approach was to be effective in even the medium term, the passing would have to improve. The problem was that as the season wore on and teams got wiser to United’s methods, the passing did not improve and consequently results took a turn for the worse, particularly after our triumph in Paris.
At this point in the season teams were doing to United what United had been doing to them earlier in the season under Mourinho; that is, when they won the ball they made sure that they did not immediately give it back. This exposed another significant failing of our current side: a lack of ball winners.
In that third phase after Paris the other big factor was fatigue – the team ran out of steam. This can only be as a consequence of the team not being fit enough, a point Ole talked about when he first came into post. The sudden increase in the tempo of our play mid-season now took its toll.
Looking forward, we would expect Ole to again promote all those mid-season characteristics of play, and given that he has demanded, publicly, that players come back in good physical shape, we would hope that the team (having also had a good full pre-season to work on fitness) will be able to sustain such efforts for longer.
The challenge for Ole is to pace the season, something his mentor Sir Alex was extremely good at. Ole will encourage the players to take the opposition on with team shape being deployed as a weapon flexibly, but he must realise that the quality of United’s play, especially their passing, needs to improve so that they keep the ball for longer and build pressure on opponents rather than effectively entering a game of Russian roulette.
The question is whether this squad is good enough to play this way and at a higher tempo. Louis van Gaal’s view was that his United squad was not. They were good enough to play the way he wanted but not at pace, which meant that we ended up with a slow motion version of his tactical plan.
Mourinho may well have shared a similar cautious view, in that he seemed to feel that his squad wasn’t good enough to take risks, meaning that towards the end of his tenure caution prevailed.
Unlike these two managers Solskjaer is more inclined to be more positive and optimistic rather than cautious and pragmatic, even pessimistic. Ole has started to rebuild the squad with a number of young signings and by promoting promising youngsters to the first team squad. Evidence suggests he may need a number of transfer windows to remodel the squad, with only some of the current set of players capable of adapting to meet his methods. As supporters we have to hope that we can all share his optimism and positivity to sustain the club until the squad’s potential matches his positive belief in it. Believe!
This article was taken from the RoM charity season preview. Help support this great cause.
The RoM 2019-20 Season Preview is available for just £6. It includes an EXCLUSIVE interview with Rafael Da Silva, a Q&A with the country's top journalists, articles by brilliant United writers, and so much more. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.