Is Solskjaer afraid to push all-in?
Background image: Fajrul Falah
In 22 previous attempts, Steve Bruce failed to defeat Manchester United. On the one hand, there’s a first time for everything. Even the Washington Generals won a few games against the Harlem Globetrotters. On the other hand, it’s not like Bruce was dealing from strength when United lost to Newcastle at St James’ Park on Sunday.
Under Jose Mourinho, United’s emphasis was on defensive discipline. In his first dozen matches, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took off the shackles. Like a pendulum swinging, the squad is too cautious again. While the boss needs some players to return to fitness and could use a striker in the January window, he must find the balance between freedom and responsibility and he must do it sooner rather than later.
The Magpies began the afternoon in 19th. They were the Premier League’s joint-worst scorers with four goals in seven matches. They’d given up 13 over that span. Yet, it was Bruce’s squad who enjoyed the better chances, scored and kept a clean sheet.
Solskjaer is tasked with rebuilding Manchester United. He’s bringing young players into the squad. Inconsistency is to be expected. Points will be dropped. That said, his Red Devils can and should handle teams mired in the table’s bottom half. When they do not, the learning process is not an acceptable excuse. The manager must be held accountable.
To be fair to Solskjaer, injuries have left him even fewer options than when the campaign began. Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard were all unavailable for the match. The biggest loss continues to be Anthony Martial, however. In the early doors, the Frenchman showed top form, validating the Norwegian’s decision to sell Romelu Lukaku and loan out Alexis Sanchez. Since he was injured, Marcus Rashford hasn’t filled his boots in the number nine role.
To be fair to fans who expect more from United, the boss had tactical options.
Solskjaer fielded a 4-2-3-1 with Rashford alone upfront, Daniel James and Andreas Pereira to either side of Juan Mata. Steve Bruce countered with a 5-4-1, keeping fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin and Jetro Willems on a leash. Yedlin was especially constrained to prevent the speedy James from running onto balls sent over the top.
On the other flank, Pereira played too narrow. Every right-side attacker in the United squad does but when an opponent plays five at the back, you need all the width you can get. As well as coming inside too often, Pereira and Mata spent too much time coming back for the ball, allowing Newcastle’s second line of defence to step forward.
With no other alternatives, Fred, Scott McTominay, Harry Maguire and Axel Tuanzebe were left to ping lateral and backward passes throughout the first half. Consequently, Maguire’s errant header from a corner just before the break was United’s only real chance. Newcastle were comfortable throughout the opening 45 minutes.
- United simply cannot play football
- Midfield horrendous, especially Fred
- Tuanzebe/Maguire solid
- Nobody can cross
- Where's Rashford?
- Failing against low block again
- 1-0 Newcastle written all over this
- I hate watching this team so much https://t.co/geXaLO804c
In the second half, Mata and Pereira took up more forward positions, allowing the double pivot and centre-backs to push forward. The Magpies suddenly found themselves struggling to cope. On 66 minutes, Solskjaer sent on Mason Greenwood for Mata, shifting to a 4-4-2, forcing Newcastle’s rearguard to contend with more than one forward. Fabian Schar managed to get his boot onto a cross destined for Rashford soon after.
Unfortunately, after being frustrated for 70 minutes, United pushed too far forward, allowing Newcastle to strike on the counter. With the lead, Toon dug in at the back.
In addition to waiting too long to help Rashford, Solskjaer made an odd choice when right-back Diogo Dalot tweaked his groin. Rather than switching Ashley Young to right-back, he sent in Marcos Rojo at left-centre-half, shifting Axel Tuanzebe to the outside and Harry Maguire to the right.
Previously, Tuanzebe and Maguire’s partnership was the bright light in United’s performance. Why mess with a good thing? After the change, Maguire cut a diagonal path to his left every time he pushed forward with the ball. Every time.
Further, why limit Rojo’s reach? At left-back against Rochdale in the EFL Cup, the Argentine was a pest, taking seven shots before moving to the inside to make way for Brandon Williams. In his two appearances over the ensuing 11 days, Rojo was slotted in the middle. Does Solskjaer not want an attacking full-back?
Some may disagree but, even as the side struggles to win away, Ole has vastly improved United’s defending. Given he succeeded Mourinho, that’s saying something. While they are 12th, United have only conceded eight times. Just three clubs [Liverpool, Leicester and Sheffield United with six, seven and seven] have been more resistant.
Solskjaer’s attacking pieces suggest he should be able to build on that foundation. The problem is, like Jose, he is either reluctant to try or doesn’t know how. If it’s the latter, that raises serious questions regarding his tactical nous. After all, his playing career was all about finishing.
To score early and often as they did in the opener against Chelsea, Solskjaer must recognise his tactics aren’t working and adjust far sooner. He can’t allow Marcus Rashford to starve for 45 minutes. In fact, Rashford might not have starved at all had the boss been willing to start Mason Greenwood alongside him from the off.
If he’s reluctant to commit too far forward or to starting his best young attacker even against an impotent side like Newcastle, OGS is creating a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy. His United hang back early, emboldening opponents. The longer the match remains goalless, the more the Red Devils trade their confidence for opponents’ fear. When they do get around to playing with urgency, it’s the other side who believe they can capitalise.
Supposedly, the plan at United was to introduce the youngsters but Solskjaer is relying on veterans like Ashley Young and Juan Mata more often than not in the Premier League. He who hesitates is lost and the Norwegian is hesitant to place full trust in Greenwood despite the flowering praise he showers on the teenager. He’s hesitant to play an aggressive, attack-minded full-back like Marcos Rojo. Plain and simple, he’s hesitant. In a modern game where courage, enterprise and initiative are rewarded, it’s no coincidence United are losing games they should win.