Solskjaer's demand for 'front-foot football' hints at identity crisis at Manchester United

Manager wants his team to be more aggressive and control games but his best success has come with a different plan

Perhaps Plan B stood for beaten. It was the damage-limitation strategy that caused Ole Gunnar Solskjaer more harm. As he surveyed the wreckage of a Manchester derby that brought a chastening defeat, he concluded that even a brief revival came in a way he did not like.

It was an attempt at solidity that worked once. It was not an answer to Manchester United’s problems as much as an example of how they are not easily solved. It left Solskjaer lamenting elements of his best game of the season.

“The result against Tottenham was good but it was not what we want to look like,” he said. “We want to be on the front foot, to be more aggressive.” Solskjaer had beaten Spurs by playing 3-4-1-2 and keeping seven outfield players behind the ball.

It proved the most short-term of measures; twice within a week, Solskjaer abandoned the system mid-match and Manchester City exposed the failings in the formation by turning it into 5-3-2 and dominating the midfield. Presumably Solskjaer will now revert to 4-2-3-1.

He argued that a cautious, defensive, counter-attacking blueprint runs counter to his ideals. The enduring problem Solskjaer faces is in formulating anything more progressive. He sees United as the attackers and adventurers they often were under Alex Ferguson. Many of his finest triumphs as a manager, however, have come courtesy of sitting deep, using their pace on the break and having less of the ball. Some have come with the insurance policy of a third centre-back. Some were against City.

United attempted to play on the front foot against Liverpool. It left space behind their back four which Mohamed Salah exploited. A defence with just two clean sheets in 25 attempts is susceptible enough anyway without offering openings to faster attackers. Playing higher up the pitch also requires an ability to regain the ball there.

Solskjaer may be irritated by suggestions that Liverpool, City and Chelsea press better than United but they do; they work together as units better, but they also have personnel better equipped to win the ball back. The static Cristiano Ronaldo can be an extreme case, but he is not the only issue. Bruno Fernandes will sometimes close down opponents alone, in eye-catching displays of commitment, but it is not a coordinated effort.

Nor is there the strategy or players to control the game with the ball. Solskjaer often references his former teammates, but he has no Paul Scholes. Fernandes is the risk-taker who will often lose possession. Paul Pogba is United’s best passer in midfield but injured. It leaves the limited, diligent pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred. It is no coincidence that many of United’s wins against elite sides come with around 40 per cent of possession; last season they beat City with 27 and 28 per cent.

It made it odder that Solskjaer also said on Saturday that United have to “get back to what we started to look like.” Certainly, he needs to rewind time: to when Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were in form and the defence could keep clean sheets, to when he found it easier to perm from his options in attack, to when he often got his tactics right for defining games and when United were not such a byword for expensive, incoherent underachievement.

It was not “front-foot, aggressive football.” It was sometimes effective. But, almost three years into his reign, the fact that Solskjaer is talking of a style of play his sides have rarely displayed hints at an identity crisis. Solskjaer’s United have been counter-attackers and comeback kings, but rarely the sort of side he talked about idealistically amid the despondency of Saturday.

Updated: November 11th 2021, 5:27 AM
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