Three improvements that can make Manchester United title challengers
Background photo: Anthony Parkes, CC BY-SA 2.0
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the blame on himself for Manchester United's 'more lucky than good' win over Reading in the FA Cup. He claimed it was always going to be difficult for an XI who rarely play together to gel at the first asking. Reading dominated possession and shots but didn't have the quality in the final third Solskjaer fields even when ringing nine changes from the midweek clash against Newcastle.
OGS claiming responsibility was another abrupt about-turn accomplished in the five games since Jose Mourinho was asked to get on his bike. His squad has now kept two clean sheets in succession. They've conceded only three in four Premier League games. The Norwegian is yet to face a top side [check this space next Sunday] but that pace will yield only 16 goals in Solskjaer's 21 games. Mourinho's tactics surrendered 29 in 17. Ole Gunnar has quickly instilled belief, intensity and the freedom to express themselves in a squad afraid to get out of bed lest they take a wrong step.
United look a completely different squad. Old Trafford's atmosphere has transformed. Dark clouds have lifted as the crowd sings "Please don't take my Solskjaer away!"
But what does all that mean? Has Manchester United suddenly been transformed into a title-challenging side (granted not for this season)?
Well, no. It’s still the same side albeit playing with increased intensity to meet their potential. Solskjaer’s perception of the 'Manchester United way' altered the squad's outlook. Because the former manager doubted them, they doubt themselves. Because the new one believes in them, they now believe in themselves. It's that simple.
Of course, Ole made tactical adjustments but not too many. The United manager mentioned the same and confirm that they would get time to work on tactics during January.
Recent results make it easy to be overconfident. But the current form and the baby-faced assassin's sweet talk doesn't presume United's revival is complete. Far from it. Even with a high press and free-flowing attack, there are still cracks which need to be resolved. For instance,
United are walking dead in dead-ball situations. The three goals shipped under Solskjaer all derived from set pieces. That is especially astounding considering Jose Mourinho's reputation for building his squads on a defensive bedrock. It's hard to believe the same defence was second best in the Premier League in 2017/18. Defensive errors from open play can be attributed to more attack-oriented tactics. Poor set-piece defending cannot be excused.
Solskjaer must work on resuscitating United's defensive capabilities. Their main flaws have been man-marking and closing down spaces on incoming crosses.
Bournemouth's goal reveals United players concentrated around the penalty box during the corner kick. They failed to mark the players outside the box once the corner had been played, which allowed the Cherries to interact and set up a cross. David Brooks created space for himself to deliver the cross. Eric Bailly and Jesse Lingard don't close him down.
Similarly, United’s man-marking has been poor. Victor Lindelof lost his man during an earlier free-kick. Nemanja Metic failed to neutralise Nathan Ake who rose to head Brooks cross into the goal. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that goals win matches and clean sheets win leagues. Unfortunately, it was Jurgen Klopp rather than Solskhjaer who most recently repeated the remark.
Closing off spaces
The Red Devils recently began pressing their opponents in the final third. That includes Jose Mourinho’s final few matches. The problem is United fail to sustain their pressing.
After the first half, they tend to sit back and soak up pressure. Sometimes it happens in the first half. When it does, opponents find their way into United’s half with one or two passes. Solskjaer and Ander Herrera recently mentioned that keeping possession and attacking is the best defence. If they want to translate that into reality, their high press must be relentless.
Manchester City last season and Liverpool this boast the league's best defence because they force opponents to play over the midfield rather than through it, setting up 50-50 balls and quick counterattacks. United are most dangerous when combinations of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez can break out in numbers before opponents can find their defensive shape.
Combining in the final third
City and Liverpool are clinical in the final third. The current United side want to do that. Sometimes, they even succeed. But it’s not a natural instinct as yet despite Rashford's Newcastle goal and Lukaku's against Reading demonstrating the required composure. Pogba failed to show it against Newcastle, flanking Martin Dubravka but blasting into the side netting.
Solskjaer isn't called the baby-faced assassin for nothing. The goal against Bayern in the Champions League is the one people remember first but in February that year, he came off the bench against Nottingham Forest to score four in 12 minutes. The new boss has already discussed his forwards' need to take their time in front of goal. He has time to work with them this week in Dubai before next Sunday's Tottenham game, as well as drilling the rest of the squad in set-piece defending and pressing high. We'll know soon enough whether the time is spent well.