So why exactly do Manchester United appear such a different outfit under Solskjaer already? Why have they scored five goals in a match for the first time since the Ferguson era? Is it as simple as escaping the authoritarian clutches of evil dictator Jose and bounding into the warm loving embrace of a smiling Ole? Is it because they have played three teams that wouldn’t be out of place in the Championship? In all likelihood, it’s a combination of several factors – ‘the new manager bounce’ most definitely has a part to play. But there are already specific differences in United’s style of play and tactics that have become evident in the small sample of games we have seen so far. There seem to have been three key changes…
It is inexplicable that Ashley Young is one of Manchester United’s first choice full-backs as we enter 2019. The prominence of full-backs in modern day attacking football has seen a surge in recent years – the purchases of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy were hugely significant in City’s dominance last season. The blue side of Manchester’s recent dip in form has perhaps been a result of Mendy’s injury and Walker’s struggles, as explored by Lewis Steele.
Perhaps it was United’s lack in quality down the flanks that lead Jose Mourinho to instruct such cautious positional instructions to his full-backs. Rarely would Young, Shaw, Darmian and Valencia be encouraged to fly past their respective wingers on the counter attack because of Mourinho’s fear of them being caught out of position. Even against the weakest of opposition their attacking tendencies appeared to be suppressed.
In just three games under Solskjaer, both Shaw and Young have found themselves in the opposing 16 yard box. In one notable moment against Bournemouth, Pogba, Martial and Rashford found themselves contained on the left wing with apparently no options in the box. That was until the ball was crossed and the camera swung to find Ashley Young on the left side of the six-yard-box where he fired the ball over the bar – despite playing right back. This one moment stood out because it would have been almost unthinkable under Mourinho, yet has been a regular occurrence over the Christmas period.
Whether this is down to specific commands by their new Norwegian manager or being simply told to express themselves is difficult to establish. Comments in press conferences and interviews do point to Solskjaer’s enthusiasm for the players to enjoy themselves and make decisions on the pitch using their own footballing brains rather than following rigid tactical directions.
Rotating forward line
What has also become clear three games into Solskjaer’s reign is his determination to make the most of his mobile front line. Rashford, Lingard and Martial are capable of playing anywhere across the final third of the pitch. Each of them displayed their versatility against Bournemouth by alternating wings and taking up the number nine position at different points in the match. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by Lingard’s final goal against Huddersfield in which he made a cutting run from a centre forward’s position behind the defence before sliding home a composed finish. The issue with constant rotation is that, particularly when Mata is playing, the wingers do have a habit of drifting inside. The full backs providing the width becomes even more essential in this circumstance, which they have been doing effectively under Solskjaer.
With Lukaku and Sanchez available for selection once again, it will be interesting to see how they fair without the apparent specific positional restrictions enforced on them. Alexis, in particular, should thrive when presented with the kind of freedom Solskjaer has added to the menu. Whether the North London version of the Chilean is available to devour the opportunity remains to be seen. He may even find it difficult to break into United’s attack now that a real fluid chemistry appears to be developing. To have the option of someone with Alexis’s quality on the bench is a positive in itself, considering the lack of substitution options that have been available to Solskjaer as of yet.
The standout player of United’s Christmas has without question been Paul Pogba. As if enough hasn’t been said about unlocking Pogba’s potential in a system more suited to him, it has to be addressed here. The number of hours pundits have dedicated to Pogba’s apparent attitude problems, his lack of effort, his haircuts and dance moves has become laughable. Regardless of whether he played 90 minutes or was left on the bench under Mourinho, Pogba filled an unfathomable amount of column inches and hours of analysis, mostly with negatives. The storyline has been altered under Ole so far and a seemingly rejuvenated and determined Pogba been key in an impressive few performances. Perhaps it really was as simple as giving the Frenchman the keys to the United team and letting him change gears whenever he saw fit.
Much has been made of the freedom Pogba now has with Matic and Herrera alongside him in a midfield three, this is certainly a factor but the focus should also be further forward. As previously mentioned, the increased mobility of the front line means that when Pogba receives a pass on the turn he can immediately make use of his remarkable vision and range of passing – his assists to Lingard and Lukaku both illustrate this perfectly. The removal of a stern Portugese stare whenever he tries passing forward with no prevail also likely contributes to his willingness to drive United forward whenever he gains possession.
Even when placed in the UEFA team of the year, Pogba never notched up big goal scoring or assist numbers so the obsession of analysts that he should add goals to his game is not essential to his success. However, exploiting the space left by the intelligent runs of Lingard and co. will result in his tally increasing significantly. The ‘pace and power’ often referred to by lazy pundits overshadows the timing and intelligence of his runs and passing ability. Again, the key to cultivating his creative streak is the movement ahead of him alongside quick use of the ball. In what is apparently a strange, new tactical breakthrough, movement off the ball allows for quicker passing of the ball – something that United are thriving on currently. What cannot be denied is that Pogba looks impeccably confident in the attacking approach of Solskjaer.
It remains to be seen whether United can maintain the brief flash of form they have displayed over Christmas, clues as to how prevalent the ‘new manager bounce’ is to their wins will surely begin to reveal themselves soon. It will be interesting to see how and if the system changes when faced with tougher opposition. The early signs are positive but one would think that United’s on-pitch problems ran deeper than just the stubborn tactics of a once ‘special one’.
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