Last week: 5-0 loss… This week: 3-0 win… What changed?…
November 2nd, 2021 | Football
The game against Liverpool at Old Trafford was one of the worst experiences I’ll ever have at a football game. Whilst it’s probably better for me long-term knowing it doesn’t get much worse than that, it was a really tough night at the Theatre of Dreams. It was also a tactical mess. The attackers didn’t track back, the midfield was outnumbered and there was no clear identity with or without the ball. This is partly down to personnel, but it was I’d probably say 90% down to the coaches. The players looked like they had no idea what was expected of them and seemed to go purely off instinct, both offensively and defensively. After that result and taking one point from a possible twelve, it seemed all but certain that this was the end of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. But fast-forward less than a week and he’s taking charge of the away clash against Tottenham. Most managers would have been sacked, so Solskjaer knew he must have been on the thinnest of ice. Fans were expectant, expecting a reaction from both the players and coaching staff, and they got one.
The team news dropped. It’s not Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1, it’s a 3-5-2. A complete revamp. It’s a system he’s never played before. He’s played a 3-4-3 in the past, but never on a consistent basis and it’s a system that hadn’t featured from the start of a game since the 3-2 defeat against RB Leipzig in December last year. Does this show a weakness? To abandon this 4-2-3-1 that you’ve been working on as a manager on coaching staff for the last three years or so, I’m not sure. It shows something is obviously wrong with the current setup on a coaching level and something had to change after the streak of poor results. I think Solskjaer realised most people wouldn’t get a second chance after the result against Liverpool and the poor run of results and performances prior to it, so perhaps he saw the Spurs game as a chance to try something completely new.
When I saw the line-up, I felt confident we’d beat Tottenham. Tottenham have a weak defence, average midfield and out of form attack. We lined up with a goalkeeper back to his best, a back-three of regular internationals, wing-backs good both offensively and defensively, a hard-working and well-balanced midfield three and a veteran striking pair up front who could bully the vulnerable and weak Spurs centre-back partnership. Of course nothing is certain in football, but I felt confident we’d get a response, which we did.
Without the ball, United sat back and defended well. The back-three allowed the United centre-backs to step out and engage with any threats around the edge of the box, knowing they have cover. As a team they were compact and organised, conceding few clear-cut chances and looking very solid and untroubled at the back. There was a slight press from the front, with Cavani running at players, but the tactic was to be organised and limit space.
When attacking, United looked to get the ball out-wide to Shaw and Wan-Bissaka, both performing well, to create a crossing opportunity for the two legendry strikers in the middle, Cavani and Ronaldo. The beauty of having a front two of Cavani and Ronaldo is their movement. They are two of the best, if not the best, at getting on defenders’ blind side before peeling off them, finding space in the box and scoring a goal. The centre-backs could only really concentrate on one, as the other kept going wide or dropping deep. In the box one would occupy the front post area, where the centre-backs tend to be, whilst the other would go to the back post, looking to get isolated against a full-back in the box in the hope, I assume, of getting an aerial chance against the full-back, with both strikers being brilliant in the air and likely to win any kind of duel against the Spurs full-backs. While no header came, the opening goal was caused by this movement on the blind-side of the full-back. Some patient play in midfield, a brilliant pass by Bruno and outstanding movement from Ronaldo to peel off Ben Davies and volley in the opening goal in classic Ronaldo fashion. The second goal saw Ronaldo receiving the ball slightly deeper threading the ball through to Cavani, who was on the blind side of Romero, brilliantly got back on side. The Uruguayan then executed a delicate chip of Hugo Lloris to double the Red Devils lead and put them in real control. With Spurs chasing the game and leaving gaps at the back, on came the pacey Rashford. Rashford made his trademark run in behind the Spurs defence, received a pass from fellow substitute Nemanja Matic and kept his composure 1v1 to seal the win for United.
So what won United the game? I think a few things did. The back-three gave the centre-backs cover and meant they could be more aggressive in terms of engaging with opponents who are dropping deeper. The centre-backs also helped progress the ball, with all three of Maguire, Varane and Lindelof being good on the ball. They did this by stepping out from the back into midfield and, in the case of Maguire and Lindelof, occasionally overlapped their wing-back. This created overloads and helped United keep the ball when the opportunity presented itself. As a team they were more aggressive and carried more fight both offensively and defensively, which you’d expect after last week’s defeat. When attacking United could express themselves knowing they had the defensive cover to be safe from a counterattack should they lose the ball. Having Fernandes drop into the midfield to create a three was also a big factor as to why Untied won the game. Recently he’s been running all over the place, with no real discipline or positional sense, but in the game against Tottenham it was a clear midfield three of Fred on the left, McTominay Central and Bruno to the right, an impressive and disciplined performance from the Portuguese. Another thing, if not obvious, which helped was having someone closer to Ronaldo to help take players away from him and leave him with more space to operate in and score goals. Ronaldo clearly had a more “free role” in the team and would go all over the final-third, drifting wide-right, into attacking midfield and making runs in and around the box, all the while having the focal point of Cavani in the middle. Occasionally Cavani would take up the “free role” while still leaving United a focal point, Ronaldo, in the middle.
You need to surround Ronaldo with players who have football intelligence and good movement to create space and chances for him. They also need to work hard off the ball and leave Ronaldo to save his energy for the attacking. United did it back in 2008 when they won the Champions League. Tevez and Rooney would work hard, while Ronaldo could save his energy for the attacking. Despite Ronaldo’s incredible fitness levels, he’s 36. This means it is more important than ever to have players around him who can track back and offer quality and movement in the final-third. Most of United’s forwards can do this if instructed by the manager, and if they don’t, you put them on the bench. I’d like to see Lingard and Sancho play a lot more with Ronaldo. Both Lingard and Sancho are creative, work hard and are team players. Rashford and Greenwood can create chances but are more inside-forwards rather than natural creative wingers, with Rashford and Greenwood often looking to score the goals rather than create. Whilst both are improving at their team play, it does again back up the idea to play the mentioned Lingard and Sancho more often.
So to conclude the response from the defeat was impressive. To win 3-0 away to Spurs is a fantastic result. There was more of an identity both offensively and defensively and I enjoyed the win. Is the back-three necessary? I think based on all of United’s centre-backs form and sharpness levels it helps them feel more secure and may help them get the confidence back, which helps the midfielders and attackers relax more when trying to create a goal, not having to be as worried about a potential counterattack. I don’t think the back-three is a long-term option due to the balance of the current Manchester United squad. Solskjaer clearly doesn’t trust Eric Bailly, meaning if one of Maguire, Varane or Lindelof is injured, there isn’t much, if any, cover and it’s immediately more difficult to play the system. The number of forwards and wingers in the squad also means there will be a lot of players not getting game time in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 system. There will be squad unrest and it can only lead to problems down the line. I believe the mentality to defend as a team and play more team players, like Cavani, is what won us the game against Tottenham, rather than the 3-5-2 system itself. So I’d personally like to see that mentality to defend as a team, with either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system used, or potentially even a diamond (4-1-2-1-2).
I hope United can build momentum, get some consistency, and get back into a title race.
Please note: The football articles that feature on this site are being written by Jack Dixon as part of his work experience. He is a teenager and looking for work experience within the football industry. He is currently studying for his media and art A-levels.