The fixture list may have been unkind to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After his darkest day as Manchester United manager comes a reminder of the second worst. United’s 5-0 defeat to Liverpool on Sunday brought comparisons with their 6-1 loss to Tottenham last season. Now it is Spurs again.
But Solskjaer generated a response last autumn: United won 4-1 at Newcastle the following game before beating Paris Saint-Germain in France three days later. Their April rematch with Tottenham ended up in a 3-1 triumph in London. The Norwegian often follows lows with highs. He has seven points from a possible nine at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. A man who invariably references United’s past must hope history repeats itself on Saturday.
But the scrutiny on his position will extend to his decision-making after everything backfired against Liverpool. Solskjaer may be in the strange position of having a huge and expensive squad, but few compelling options where he needs them most. Most of Solskjaer’s attempts at solidity have been based on the twin axes of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof in the heart of defence and Scott McTominay and Fred in the middle of midfield. Each felt fundamentally broken by Liverpool.
But Eric Bailly is trusted so little by Solskjaer that he rushed back a clearly unfit Maguire at Leicester. Solskjaer must hope that Raphael Varane, who has resumed training, is fit to start. If not, he may have to persevere with the same pair of centre-backs. Minus the suspended Paul Pogba to change the dynamic in midfield, the chances are that ‘McFred’ will be retained and Solskjaer will stick with his favourites. Perhaps United’s hopes of greater frugality entails relying on an underachieving Spurs side who failed to muster a shot in the second half against West Ham.
But it will be instructive if Solskjaer switches shape. He used to be more tactically flexible, but has played 4-2-3-1 in every league game since January. But then a 4-4-2 diamond helped congest the centre of the pitch to secure a stalemate at Anfield. Solskjaer’s other alternative was the 3-4-1-2 deployed in last year’s win in Paris. Each is built around a No 10, suiting Bruno Fernandes. A problem for a star-studded squad overloaded with attackers is that each features one fewer forward than 4-2-3-1. If the assumption is that Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo start, that leaves a solitary position for Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Martial, Edinson Cavani and Jesse Lingard to contest.
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It may be harder to configure a diamond without Pogba, though using Nemanja Matic at the base could permit Solskjaer to play three defensive midfielders. Or a three-man defence offers the possibility of safety in numbers; perhaps Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s pace could equip him to excel in the role on the right of a three that Kyle Walker sometimes plays for England, while Luke Shaw has been tucked in on the left of a trio by Solskjaer before. Given the left-back’s struggles against Mohamed Salah last week, he may appreciate the presence of Alex Telles outside him. Otherwise, there is a case for dropping Shaw, one of the success stories of Solskjaer’s management.
But part of the problem is that inasmuch as United’s squad was built for any shape, it is for 4-2-3-1. Certainly a shape with two wider strikers who have responsibility for tracking full-backs may not suit Ronaldo. As it is, United’s wide men have tended to show too little attention to their defensive duties, leaving Fred and McTominay isolated and outnumbered. Solskjaer’s best strategy may be to order his wide men back, revive his counter-attacking blueprint, defend deeper in two blocks of four and spring breaks as the man who completed United’s greatest comeback seeks to revive his own fortunes.