Manchester United scored five goals in a Premier League game for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement on Saturday evening as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s interim reign got off to a perfect start with victory over Cardiff City in south Wales.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could not do too much in his few days on the Manchester United bench, but he certainly managed to bring back a smile to the players’ faces. And above all – he let them play simple, but very efficient football. In short, the Norwegian liberated United’s attacking potential which was locked and hidden deep in Mourinho’s dark basement of negative football ideas.
I previously wrote about two-faced United under Mourinho’s reign and about his internal battles. This is now in the past and what we will see from Solskjaer’s side in future will be only positive and progressive attacking football.
Of course, it was only Cardiff City – one of the worst Premier League sides – but there was an awful lot of positives in United’s game which pleased the fans. The future is bright for Manchester United, that’s for sure.
How Guardiola influenced United’s new manager
When talking and assessing how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer performed at Molde, you must consider Rosenborg’s ultimate supremacy in Norwegian football. When taking that into account, Solskjaer’s performance can be considered superb.
He led them to their first ever league title in his first season and then defended the title in 2012. Afterwards they experienced bad times and Solskjaer eventually went to Cardiff. He didn’t manage to keep them in the Premier League and was sacked in September 2014 after a bad start in the Championship.
He mainly used a very attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, and sometimes 4-3-3. United’s “baby-faced killer” also sometimes experimented with a 3-5-2. But the key to his success at Molde was the style of football which he cherished and was a constant no matter what formation his side utilised.
Building attacks from the back, pressing from the front, counter-pressing, creating numerical superiority with midfield rotations, fluid attacking play, a lot of short pass combinations up front, wing-backs positioned high in the opposition half, a third-man concept… Sounds like Pep Guardiola and his historic sides, no? It is no coincidence, as Solskjær has cited the Catalan as his role model.
Jesse Lingard, who scored two goals in the second half in Wales, was asked what had changed for United in order to allow them to produce that level of performance. His quote is a perfect, yet very simple example of the above mentioned things. It’s still very early, but there were some of those elements in United’s display against Cardiff. Martial’s third goal is a perfect example of how United will look in future, mostly against weaker sides.
“I’m not too sure,” Lingard told BT Sport. “I think the quick play, the lads played forward very quickly and were positive with a ball and we were making runs off the ball. The midfield were playing higher and the full backs are higher and we pegged them back and created a lot of chances through that.”
Solskjær didn’t bring revolutionary ideas into United’s dressing room and didn’t have time for major changes. But then how is it possible to achieve this kind of change in tactics in just a couple of sessions? Easy. Those were only basic instructions which top-flight players understand without any problems.
Mechanisms to play out from the back are easy to implement for top teams, but the difference between the best ones and the mediocre is what happens in the final third. This is what Solskjær must focus on in his time at Old Trafford if he wants to be successful. Especially against the teams who defend properly against stronger opponents.
Captivated Pogba vs Liberated Pogba
Though he failed to provide a goal, Paul Pogba produced an eye-catching performance against Cardiff in which he registered two assists. To see a change in his performance I’ve compared his position & involvement against both Southampton and the Bluebirds
The difference is obvious. The France international was much more involved in attacking phases of the game in Wales than in Southampton. It is worth mentioning the 25-year-old enjoyed far more possession further up the pitch where his best position is, as he proved with Juventus.
Captivated Pogba vs Liberated Pogba or Pogba vs Southampton/Pogba vs Cardiff.
The difference is obvious. Jose Mourinho’s tactics did not allow him anything in the attacking phase. OGS is smart enough to recognize where you use Pogba to get the best out of him. #mufc #CARMUN pic.twitter.com/r5tSRVHO6W
— Ivan Žeželj (@izezelj) December 23, 2018
His passing was immense too. Pogba made almost twice as many passes against Cardiff (100) than he did against the Saints (51) at the same success rate (84%). The Frenchman took a lot of criticism when playing under Mourinho for taking too long on the ball and trying to overcomplicate things on the pitch.
To compare, against Southampton United’s most expensive player completed five dribbles, more than any other player on the pitch, but he was also dispossessed eight times and produced six unsuccessful touches, two figures which were noticeably higher than every other player.
It was a bright contrast in Wales, where Pogba did not complete a single dribble, but neither was he dispossessed, while he produced just one unsuccessful touch. When looking to defensive stats, although he wasn’t the best in terms of interceptions and clearances, Pogba made nine recoveries in midfield against Cardiff, and no player made more.
After the match, Solskjær spoke of Pogba’s role in his side and confirmed we will be seeing more from the French international.
“I think he brings what he can, he’s a quality player. But that’s the same with all of them.
“I’ve worked with Paul before and enjoyed the two days we’ve had and will enjoy working with him and the rest of them in the next four or five months. Paul is capable of playing as an 8, as a 10, as a 6.”
Was Mourinho the virus he talked about?
It appears Solskjær also brought a cure to neutralize a virus that Mourinho feared would obliterate his dressing room. Or was the virus the Portuguese coach? I’ll let you decide.
Anthony Martial also enjoyed his first game under Solskjær and we once again saw the full potential of the French star when playing him in the right place. Martial terrorized Cardiff’s defence, positioning himself in the left half-space when receiving the ball and producing numerous take-ons with his well- known dribbling skill.
Not only that, Martial often dropped deep on the left-hand side to provide space for the free-floating Lingard to occupy, giving time and space for Luke Shaw to get higher up the pitch and provide much desired width which was rarely seen in Mourinho’s reign. Similar things happened on the opposite side where Ashley Young played as a winger at times too.
— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) December 22, 2018
Consistency now matters more than anything
In the early days of December I asked “where’s the consistency?” and consistency will now matter more than anything. Solskjær came to United once again as a super-sub at the right time: when United have a series of easy fixtures ahead of them. It is the perfect chance for the Norwegian and his team to rack up the points and close the eight-point gap to Chelsea and Arsenal.
To do that, the feel-good factor which is well and truly back at Old Trafford must be maintained. Solskjær’s next clash is against Huddersfield on Boxing Day and it’s a big chance to prove that the fresh new methods which he implemented into United’s style of play must be maintained.
Huddersfield is not a big step up in toughness of opponent, but they are a side who can organize themselves well defensively at times. They’re ranked 12th for expected goals against, while Cardiff are the third worst side in the division.
Their five games without a win will surely help United to boost their confidence under the new manager but it will also be a test of how Ole Gunnar Solskjær will set up his team to break up a far more organized defence than the one they faced in Wales.