Should Solskjaer restore Manchester United's aerial threat?
Background image: Simon Steinberger
When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, bringing his ground-based possession style with him, Premier League aficionados were of two minds. The old school boys claimed the Catalunyan manager needed to adapt his game to English football. The new school heralded a revolution. Both were right.
In his first season, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss struggled. His midfield couldn’t dink the ball around, lulling the opposition to sleep. They would come out to win the ball in such an aggressive albeit organised fashion, there was little time or space to exploit when one refused to play a vertical game.
To be fair, Claudio Bravo chose that season to be the world’s worst goalkeeper. His misadventures didn’t help when Premier League clubs also pressed teams high up the pitch as City consistently proved ‘foolish enough’ to attempt to play the ball from the back.
Thankfully, Pep was fully equipped to respond to setbacks. The club had more money than God and, anticipating his appointment, a management team of former colleagues who shared his philosophy in place when he arrived. Lessons learned in Pep’s debut campaign, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain identified and acquired the players needed to play Guardiola’s style against Premier League opposition: Ederson in goal, Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and then Aymeric Laporte as fullbacks, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez in midfield.
Mendy turned out to be more susceptible to injury than a praying mantis in a hurricane but the club kept buying players to add depth. Pep soon had a goalkeeper and defenders with sufficient skill on the ball not to wilt under even the most extreme pressure and enough playmakers in his squad to supply every top six club. Fully armed, he proceeded to show England how football “was meant to be played”. Two Premier League titles and a domestic treble later, most of the division is stealing from his playbook.
That now includes the ‘quiet’ neighbours who lorded it over City for more than half a century.
At first, Manchester United resisted. Hoping for the best version of the notorious Portuguese double Champions League winner, the board hired the anti-Pep, Jose Mourinho. They received the full package. The first season brought optimism as well as an EFL Cup and Europa League trophy. Nothing was added to the cupboard in year two but United improved from sixth to second in the Premier League. Then the doomsday clock rang year three. The traditional Mourinho meltdown occurred. He feuded with a litany of players he said weren’t following his program while demonstrating hypocritical insubordination towards his superiors. He was sacked two days before his Chelsea dismissal’s anniversary.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the surprise replacement. The Norwegian promised to restore the ‘Manchester United way’. In the context of promoting from the academy and signing promising young British players, he is doing exactly that. From a tactical perspective, however, he is mimicking Guardiola.
Less proficient at playing from the back and working short passes, United still gain more joy from counterattacks and Paul Pogba’s regular left-to-right 40-yard diagonals. That said, City score more often from the counter than people credit and Kevin de Bruyne loves the long-distance, cross-pitch bomb as well.
The difference is that De Bruyne is more expendable to Guardiola than the Frenchman is to Solskjaer. When the Belgian goes missing, as he frequently does, Pep can plug and play Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez or even Phil Foden, not forgetting that David Silva is already in the lineup. Ole lacks that level of skill and experience beyond Pogba. Andreas Pereira is too green. Fred hasn’t shown he can be trusted. Juan Mata can’t give him 90 minutes once, let alone twice a week anymore.
Nonetheless, the baby-faced assassin systematically removed every aerial threat he inherited. Jose Mourinho relied heavily on Marouane Fellaini to come off the bench on the hour either to shore up the defence when leading or be a target in the opposition’s 18-yard box when goals were needed. Solskjaer sanctioned his transfer to China. Chris Smalling was more awkward on the ball than a maths nerd asking a cheerleader to the prom but he came up with several key goals from corner kicks and wide set-pieces. He’s on loan to Roma. Romelu Lukaku struggled to fit the new system when shunted to the touchline to make room for Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial but was a constant danger on the end of high crosses. Alexis Sanchez had a knack for heading the ball, too, despite his diminutive stature. Both are at Inter.
Harry Maguire was signed. While still with Leicester, he used his quick feet at the back post to stun Manchester United at the death but he is a danger in the air as well. In promising dead-ball situations, he hustles forward to line up on the far side. Without a second threat to consider, however, defenders can focus on the big man. Often double-teamed, he struggles even to head a ball down for a teammate to shoot on target. He only found time and space against his former club on Saturday because the delivery was so far from goal. With Maguire continually marked, United’s only other viable option is to play short.
In essence, Solskjaer limits his squad to tactics with which they’re unfamiliar and, in many cases, unsuited. There is no Plan B while Plan A remains a work in the early stages. On the one hand, removing all other possibilities forces players to learn. On the other, it would be nice to have another option.
In 2017, Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino surprised everyone by signing such an option. Swansea’s 6’4” frontman didn’t fit Spurs’ keep-it-on-the-carpet modus operandi. The Spaniard saw limited action with the Lilywhites but provided the difference to carry his side past Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals last term.
Pochettino released the 34-year-old in the summer. Even after the Premier League transfer window closed, he was available to United as a player without a club. Speculation was rife he’d be signed when Alexis joined Big Rom in Milan. It didn’t happen and Llorente ended up with Napoli instead.
The Red Devils could look at bringing Fellaini back in January. The Belgian is useful off the bench and familiar with the club. That might be too much of a mea culpa for Solskjaer to swallow, though. Pep famously refused to abandon his philosophy.
More importantly to the United boss, Guardiola didn’t have to change. He had a history of success, the full support of his club, a clearly defined plan and superiors prepared to be patient. The Norwegian has none of those. His two immediate predecessors were notoriously intransigent at the cost of their jobs. Showing a little flexibility might encourage the United board to do likewise. Admitting he’s made a mistake might be the best thing Ole can do to succeed as Manchester United manager.