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Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær – A breath of fresh air

Six wins in six and Manchester United have sprung into life under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. José Mourinho’s sacking took place a bit too late if anything, but it was absolutely the right decision. In fact, irrespective of how United do this season under Solskjær, the call to bring him in has been vindicated, especially after how Mourinho had burnt one bridge too many in the squad. Solskjær has brought a sense of freshness into the scene and has got the players playing in the right way. One can overstate the importance of knowing a club inside out but in this case what Solskjær has managed to do is nothing short of commendable. It might be too early to say if he is the right choice to take the club forward in the long-term. For now, however, he is doing a magnificent job as caretaker manager.

Solskjær

Whether it was down to Mourinho’s weekly downbeat moans playing a role or not, United were defensively shambolic under the Portuguese this season. A goal difference of 0, the second worst record for goals conceded from set-pieces and just the 2 clean sheets in 17, the problems were laid bare for all to see.

Solskjær has significantly improved affairs since he has come in. United have not conceded from open play and have only shipped 3 goals – all from set-pieces under the new caretaker manager. While David de Gea did pull off a few spectacular saves against Tottenham, the general consensus is that there has been a gradual improvement in performances since the Norwegian took over. 

The way they work with possession has changed too. Under Mourinho, De Gea was often instructed to aim long balls downfield to the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, Under Solskjær, United tend to play out from the back a lot more with De Gea more often than not playing into the player’s feet rather than the chests and heads of the big men up front. Another big difference one can notice is that the centre-backs are given much more responsibility on the ball and are asked to play out of the back with confidence.

Another player transformed is Nemanja Matić, who has shown a tendency to drop in between the centre-backs as play builds up from the back. Alongside Matić, Ander Herrera’s terrier-like mentality and his ability to actually play has made a big difference to the Red Devils. The two of them have been a lot more sharper, have been quick to break play down and start rapid counters more efficiently than they used to. Matić, especially, was lingering on the ball a bit too much and that slowed down United’s attacks quite often, whereas now, both are asked to play a lot more quicker and find the likes of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, who are lethal in the final third.

The way the full-backs have gone about their business has changed too, with both Ashley Young and Luke Shaw encouraged to bomb forward and provide natural width. With Juan Mata likely to drift into central areas, Young essentially has the full right-hand side to himself, with the freedom to go forward and hold the width. Often underrated, one has to admire Ashley Young’s mentality who has shown great adaptability and for now, is definitely Solskjær’s first choice right-back. Luke Shaw’s performances have been largely good this season but for his recent dip in form. It is important for United that he gets back to his best soon.


Read More | Ole Gunnar Solskjær – The Story Of An Unlikely Legend


The final third has been arguably the biggest point of difference between Solskjær and Mourinho. The freedom that Paul Pogba has, to be involved in the play in the attacking areas of the pitch, combined with the brilliant movement of the first-choice front three in Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, has made United a joy to watch once again.

Rashford thrives on getting in behind the opposing defences and his runs off the ball allow Pogba to get into the box more often and play the final pass or take a shot himself. Lingard drifts into the central areas and the best part about his game – which is his instinctive movement off the ball into the channels has come to the fore in recent games. His ability to drag defenders away from their natural positions has ensured that others can get space to create and score more goals. Anthony Martial’s exquisite ability in one v one situations and his creative instincts have also been on show. He scored one of United’s goals of the season when he polished off a terrific team move against Cardiff in Solskjær’s opening game.

Solskjær has also shown his tactical flexibility by changing the way the front three lined up against Tottenham last week. Deployed in what was essentially a diamond, Lingard played as the central figure, and Martial and Rashford were played as wide forwards on the left and right. Both Martial and Rashford weren’t extensively asked to track the Tottenham full-backs and whenever United got the ball back, had a free run at the two Spurs centre-backs.

This was what brought about Rashford’s winning goal with Pogba’s sublime pass finding him in space for what turned out to be the winner. After the game, Pogba went on to say,


“It’s a great ball but we have been training on this we knew that was the weakness of Spurs they got high and we need to attack in the opposite side and that’s what we tried in training. We knew it would be difficult and that we knew we could hurt them. That’s what we worked on, they are very good with the ball they know where to go and good pattern and movement they did it for three years they knew it was the key to create changes.”


While many dismissed Solskjær’s first five games as an easy set of fixtures that they should have won, the win against Spurs certainly showed why Solskjær hasn’t just merely been a voice that has made the players happy. Working hard behind the scenes, the Norwegian has tactically transformed the way Manchester United play. It would be patronising to suggest that Solskjær has ONLY been a motivating voice at Old Trafford. There has been a marked difference in the manner in which United have been playing football. The results have followed as a consequence of focusing on the manager’s instructions and tactical inputs.

Clearly, there have been a number of changes that have been implemented to the way United play and Solskjær deserves a lot of credit for that. At this moment of time it’s quite hard to predict if he is the right man to take over permanently, but he has done a magnificent job so far and has put United right back in contention for a Top 4 finish. Also, he has as given many fans the hope that the Champions League and FA Cup runs may not be a lost cause. The ‘baby-faced assassin’ certainly hasn’t done any harm to his chances, make no mistake about that.


Feature Image via South China Morning Post

Solskjær Image via FourFourTwo

Matic Image via FIFA

1999 Champions League winning goal celebration Image via Mystery Wallpaper

Pogba pass Image via Times

Manchester United Archive

Edited by Kabir Ali


 

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