Did Solskjaer take a Christmas gift from under Guardiola's tree?
Background image: Dan Wirdefalk
Christmas, like Easter and, in North America, Thanksgiving, is meant to be a joyous holiday spent with loved ones. Often, though, tensions rise. In part, you’re not accustomed to spending full days with these strange, annoying people who share you and/or your partner’s DNA. If you need a break from Aunt June’s judgment on everything from Brexit to the tinsel on your tree, you can’t make up an errand you absolutely must run, apologies, back in a jiff. All the shoppes are closed.
But it’s not just your relatives; it’s the slow cooking. In the era of instant gratification, filled with fast-food drive-throughs and home delivery, Christmas is a day when you’re trapped in a house filled with the enticing odour of a slow-cooking goose, ham or turkey that won’t be served for hours. Not to mention the pie. If you sidle into the kitchen to sample the gravy, stuffing or other side dishes, you’re likely to be rapped on the knuckles with a wooden spoon and sent packing. Between the smell, the impenetrable guard and the complaints rising from your belly, the waiting is a horrible ordeal.
To many Manchester United supporters, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s project is that sort of Christmas every day of the year. The Norwegian is playing a long-term game as Red Devils boss, introducing young players into the squad, building slowly for the future. Except, United faithful want to win now. Waiting is for Arsenal and Tottenham fans.
The more militant social media warriors attacked Solskjaer this past week, the first anniversary of his appointment as caretaker boss. His side are a point worse in the table than Jose Mourinho’s when the Special One was sacked. Never mind they are unbeaten in nine of their last ten, the lone defeat coming in Kazakhstan when the U23s and Jesse Lingard played a dead rubber against Astana. Jose had dropped two straight, three of his last eight and refused to play his best player in arguably the season’s most important match, the clash with Liverpool at Anfield.
While the squad responded immediately to Solskjaer and regathered their momentum recently, there’s no denying the long stretch in the middle when they were incredibly inconsistent. Still, it was part of the process, one comparable to the work Brendan Rodgers began and Jurgen Klopp completes at Liverpool. You can also think of it as the point when, after assembling his ingredients, Soskjaer began chopping the onions. It did bring tears to the eyes.
Image: Muffintop04, CC BY-SA 3.0
Every step of the way, however, there are signs of improvement. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire solidified the backline virtually overnight. Scott McTominay made himself indispensable in defensive midfield. Dan James hasn’t scored since early doors but continues creating goals; he claims five assists on the season. Marcus Rashford struggled to take chances [and convert penalties] out of the gate but now lists 14 goals and five assists over 23 appearances in all competitions. The England international is directly involved in a goal once every 97 minutes on average. What can you say about 18-year-old Mason Greenwood other than he’s United’s second-leading scorer behind Rashford with eight goals and three assists in just over a thousand minutes? His goal rate beats his teammate’s by five minutes.
Ole exploited the common trait in all that attacking talent, speed. United were dangerous on the counter and distinctly better against top clubs to whom they ceded possession rather than lesser ones who forced them to break down low blocks. Fourteen of the Red Devils’ 25 Premier League points came in six matches against their traditional top-six rivals and second-placed Leicester. Obtaining the remaining nine required 11 games in the trenches. Imagine where Solskjaer’s squad would be if they could unlock stay-at-home defences as efficiently as their noisy neighbours, Manchester City.
Until Wednesday night’s result against Colchester United, that was the missing ingredient in Ole’s Christmas goose. The Red Devils began the evening sluggishly, unable to make headway against John McGreal’s outfit. Then they found their stride in the second half, with a typical counter-attacking strike from Marcus Rashford. On the other hand, goals two and three were ripped straight from Pep Guardiola’s playbook.
United pinned back Colchester, controlled possession from directly in front of goal, worked the ball to the left and right, forcing defenders to move, then made runs towards the end line to fizz balls across the goalmouth. Greenwood forced Ryan Jackson to bundle the ball into his own goal on 55 minutes but had the defender not, Rashford was waiting to finish. A few minutes later, Rashford sent one in the other direction for Anthony Martial to knock in from close range, again at the far post.
Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero claim 41 goals between them in all competitions. A sizeable percentage come from the same tactic: move defenders laterally, penetrate to the by-line from one side or the other, then whip a low cross across the goalmouth for someone to tap in.
I can hear the #OleOut brigade laughing, saying such success means nothing when it comes against a mid-table League Two club. Apparently that lot were born able to read, write and converse in fluent English and quote Shakespeare and Chaucer from beneath a framed doctorate in astrophysics rather than a brightly coloured plastic mobile playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. As well, they could probably eat solid food using a knife and fork with no need of a diaper in the aftermath. The rest of us learned these skills in a friendly, progressively difficult environment before going out into the real world. Well, not the astrophysics but, if you're still trying to get past Burning Crusade in World of WarCraft, you get the point.
Now that United grasp the concept, the question is whether they can score in the same manner against tougher competition? The coming week offers plenty of opportunities to perfect the strategy. Bottom feeders Watford provide the first line of resistance later today, then it’s Newcastle on Boxing Day and Burnley Saturday.
New Watford manager Nigel Pearson memorably saved Leicester from the drop in 2013/14. He didn’t do it with an all-out attack. Like Steve Bruce and Sean Dyche, he subscribes to a compact defence with the discipline to absorb pressure. Bus Parking 101. None from the Hornets, Magpies and Clarets will be as easy to penetrate as Colchester.
There are no two ways about it; United must work hard at breaking through brick walls until they meet Mikel Arteta and Arsenal at the Emirates on New Year’s Day but they’ve been sniffing these chances all year. Finally, it’s time to make a meal of them.