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Tactical Analysis: Solskjaer’s conservatism in big matches isn’t anything new

SB Nation logoSB Nation 2/3/2021 Pauly Kwestel
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a blue uniform holding a football ball © Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United approached a Big Six match on Sunday the same way they’ve been approaching them all season long. Lo and behold, the result was the same as it’s been for the majority of those matches.

Once again, United kept things tight defensively at the expense of creating an attack. They didn’t give Chelsea many opportunities to score, but found themselves with even fewer. Just like earlier matches against Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal, United had chances to steal the points late on but failed to convert.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went for his tried and true ‘McFred’ pivot that he has favored in all the Big Six matches. They gave you exactly what we’ve come to expect from them. The two have never lost a match (when playing as a pair) against a Big Six opponent, but after winning two of their first three, they still have just the two wins.

After United’s 3-2 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup, Solskjaer spoke of how big it was that United won that game playing on their terms. He spoke of the win showing United’s progression, how they no longer have to adapt to their opponents but can go up against the big boys and play their way.

As always with Solskjaer, if you want to know what he really thinks, you have to take everything he says with a grain of salt and look at his actions instead. United’s next Big Six match after the Liverpool win saw him revert straight back to the ‘McFred’ pivot — with Paul Pogba out wide (until Scott McTominay left with a cramp) — and it was the same story Sunday.

Measuring Progress through Big Game Tactics

Solskjaer is in the midst of rebuilding Manchester United and trying to get them back to competing at the top year in year out. He’s developing a very young squad, and that development isn’t going to happen overnight. Since undertaking this project, substantial progress has been made, but how exactly does one measure what that progress is?

Everyone and their mother has different metrics. Position in the league table, winning a trophy, points total, improving on finishing position. All have their flaws. By finishing third last season, there isn’t much more United can climb in the table, though they also finished that high because everyone else was also particularly bad. They hit the summit this January — the first time they were top in January since 2013 — but that again was more due to other teams not playing all that well. As soon as United blinked, Manchester City had passed them.

Perhaps the best method of judging progress is looking at how Solskjaer approaches these big games. Looking at the tactics Solskjaer deploys gives us a good idea of what his current assessment of his teams level actually is.

Ever since taking over Solskjaer has been very pragmatic and conservative when it comes to matches against top four rivals. It started with his first one, United’s trip to Wembley in January 2019 to face Tottenham Hotspur. Solskjaer swapped out the 4-3-3 he’d been using for a diamond midfield. The plan was to sit, absorb pressure, and hit Tottenham on the counter. A goal just before halftime saw him get even more conservative. In the second half he switched to a 4-2-3-1 and while United got forward at times, his team dug deep to withstand an onslaught from Tottenham. 14 second half shots, 21 in total. A post shot expected goals of 3.4, but David de Gea turned back the clock, reminding everyone of what he did at the Emirates three years earlier as United stole the points. Watching that match you’d be forgiven for thinking José Mourinho was still the manager.

A few weeks later he did it again, deploying the diamond again against Arsenal in the FA Cup. Absorb pressure, hit them on the counter. United had 37 percent possession, they were outshot 13-8, but they scored on three of them. The next round against Chelsea it was the same story. Diamond, 33 percent possession, outshot 11-7, scored twice. Injuries probably played a factor in the tactics of the 0-0 draw to Liverpool a week later but it’s what we’ve come to expect now: play tight defensively, don’t give them much, but United didn’t get anything either (the xG was 0.2-0.4), and you don’t need me to tell you how defensive United were in Paris.

Since Solskjaer has taken over he’s taken a very Mourinho-like approach to United’s matches against the big boys. That doesn’t mean he’s exclusively sat back and parked the bus, but he has been far more pragmatic and conservative than a lot of us want to admit.

Perhaps Solskjaer was ready to open things up a bit last year. When Chelsea arrived at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season he lined up in the 4-2-3-1 we’ve gotten used to, though the plan was still absorb pressure and counter. Chelsea had more of the ball in the first half and hit the woodwork a few times. United got a goal from a penalty that was won on a counter attack. Two goals in quick succession in the second half turned the game into a runaway.

Maybe Paul Pogba’s injury forced a change but that’s doubtful. The rest of the season saw Solskjaer revert to — at the macro level — the same general philosophy in each of these games.

That doesn’t mean all the matches were the same. At times he used the regular 4-2-3-1, at times he used a back three. In the space of three days United pulled off two great performances in two very different ways, but the overall strategy was the same. Each game United had a plan to nullify what the other team did best, but not necessarily attack where they’re weakest.

Solskjaer’s proven time and time again to be really good at that.

If you don’t concede you won’t lose, and if you take a chance or two you’ll win. In Solskjaer’s first year and a half, they won a bunch of games that really could have gone either way. This year the pendulum is swinging back around.

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This season Solskjaer has scrapped the varying formations and stuck with the 4-2-3-1 — that’s progress in it’s own right — but the conservative approach has remained. They’ve dropped the quick direct counter attacks, and their creativity is down, but they’ve increased their possession share, using that as another means of defending. Your opponents can’t score if they don’t have the ball.

At the macro level the plan has been the same, but for each game there’s always something different. Against Arsenal it was a diamond midfield. Against City, Pogba lined up on the left wing. At Anfield, Pogba moved to the right and Marcus Rashford was played down the middle.

At Stamford Bridge, the wrinkle was a high press. Given Thomas Tuchel’s recent favoritism of Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud ahead of pacier players like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Christian Pulisic, Solskjaer had no problem playing a high defensive line and pressing Chelsea far more than United usually do. The Red Devils front four pressed with a precision that we haven’t seen nearly enough this season, winning the ball back in the final third 11 times, the most they’ve had in a game this season.

Unfortunately for the Reds, once they got the ball, they didn’t do anything with it.

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The point of pressing high is to win the ball and create a chance before your opponent recovers their shape. United struggled with the ‘quick’ part.

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And the ‘go forward’ part.

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Dan James was recalled to the team due to his tremendous work rate as well as his pressing and defensive abilities. He covers Wan-Bissaka really well which would be massive in dealing with Ben Chilwell. More than that, he earned a place in the team with his great form as of late.

But a great run of form doesn’t suddenly turn James into Riyad Mahrez or Jack Grealish. The knock on him has always been a poor final ball. The (small) knocks on Rashford and Bruno have been regarding their decision-making in the final third. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that United were undone by a lack of a final ball and poor decision-making in the final third.

Playing a high press doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing an aggressive attacking game plan. By the same token, playing conservatively doesn’t inherently mean you’re parking the bus and sitting deep the whole match.

The Domino Effects of Holes in the Squad

It all comes back to the same thing we knew back in September, this squad has holes in it that need to be covered up week after week. Solskjaer has spent this entire season trying to cover up the fact that he doesn’t have a right winger.

Right wing isn’t the only hole United have. Their lack of a legitimate defensive midfielder means they need to play with two more box-to-box type midfielders rather than a six and a more creative player. That means against the big boys Paul Pogba has to be shuffled out to the wing and Donny van de Beek can never play.

Covering for a hole requires added responsibility for other players and results in added strain to different parts of the team. Untied don’t have a right winger so they need width from somewhere else. They don’t have creative midfielders so they need to provide secondary (to Bruno) creativity from elsewhere. That job has fallen to the fullbacks. If the fullbacks are pushing up higher, someone needs to cover them. That job falls to the midfielders, which then increases the exposure of your (not so pacy) center-backs. In a related story, United are conceding a lot more goals then they did last year.

Use of Shaw Illustrates the Difference

United’s conservatism in the big games comes from how they deploy their fullbacks. Against Big Six opposition United use their fullbacks in a far more conservative manner, which is a pretty big deal when they play such a significant role in the attack.

To illustrate the difference we just have to look at Luke Shaw.

Shaw has been brilliant this season, and with Marcus Rashford spending a lot more time on the right, he’s stepped up to take on a lot more of United’s creativity this season; Shaw has basically become the Robin to Bruno’s Batman. He’s second only to Bruno in shot-creating and goal-creating actions among United players who have played at least four games.

Considering that the big teams tend to man-mark Bruno and limit his effectiveness, it’s important for your secondary creator to be there. But against the big boys, Shaw typically isn’t, because United hold him back.

Just look at this situation early on. Rashford overhits a cross towards Dan James. Typically, Shaw would be on the other end of the box to collect this, but on Sunday he... wasn’t.

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That’s not to say Shaw doesn’t get forward at all. He does, but significantly less than in other matches. Obviously his touches per 90 will be down in Big Six games compared to others because United have much less of the ball, but we can look at the percentage of where his touches come from. Against non top six teams, 42.94 percent of his touches come in the attacking third. Against the top six that number drops to 32.96 percent.

The breakdown in numbers emphasizes the difference in how United use him against the top six and against everyone else.

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Against the rest of the league, Shaw is a major part of creating United’s attacks. He drives them forward, progresses the ball, brings it to the final third. Only four players in the league (to have played more than four games) carry the ball into the final third more per game than Shaw does. He’s critical to United’s buildup play.

Against the Big Six, Shaw becomes much more of a supporting act. He’s not bringing the ball to the final third, he’s arriving in the final third once it’s already there. He carries the ball less against the Big Six (again, possession plays a role here) but a lower percentage of the carries he is making are progressive. The fact that more of his passes against the Big Six are forwards suggest he’s operating from deeper on the pitch, thus there’s more space to go forwards.

Look at this situation against Chelsea. Typically when Harry Maguire gets the ball, Shaw will start pushing up the pitch. Here he actually comes back to the ball, and stays square.

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Here as Maguire starts driving forward with the ball, rather than run up the wing and force Hudson-Odoi to back up with him, Shaw stays behind Maguire.

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This is in direct contrast to how Shaw usually runs when Maguire is carrying the ball upfield.

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In these matches United’s fullbacks are far more selective about when they get up the pitch to join the attack, often doing it in short 5-10 minute bursts. When they do get up the pitch though, guess what happens?

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Wow, that looks awfully familiar. Did this happen before?

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Two is just a coincidence. No way there’s a third.

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Even Aaron Wan-Bissaka is getting in on the act?

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Those were United’s best chances against Liverpool and Arsenal and in those games they were decent chances. On Sunday McTominay’s chance had an xG of just 0.06 — it’s a testament to McTominay’s recent form that we actually expect him to finish that. It wasn’t a great chance, but that was United’s joint best opportunity along with Mason Greenwood’s shot from just outside the box a minute earlier. They’d also get the Fred shot that would have sent all of us into delirium a few minutes later.

Oh, and how did that Fred chance come about? Someone put their head down and charged forward with the ball into the attacking third.

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The common theme from all these games is United’s best chances are coming from their fullbacks, but they’re simply not allowing their fullbacks to get forward enough to create enough chances to win. It’s especially conservative given that only 26 percent of the match was played in United’s third.

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Conservative Approach is an Indictment of the Squad

That’s Solskjaer’s assessment of the current squad. If we’re conceding goals against the likes of Newcastle, Fulham, Sheffield United, and West Brom you need to tighten things up against the likes Liverpool and Chelsea. So he reigns in the fullbacks and plays it much safer. Take away what your opponent does well. If they can’t score, you can’t lose. Then for a few short periods loosen the reigns and let them push up and maybe you can score one yourself.

Perhaps we didn’t notice this conservatism when the results were coming in. Or maybe we just didn’t mind. After all, the games were exciting — counter attacking football doesn’t automatically equal boring football. The 2007-08 team was a counter attacking team and they were fun as well.

The bottom line is United were still approaching these games in a conservative manner. They were set up to thwart their opponent, and if they could score that was all the better. With the exception of the home derby against City (a truly perfect performance), they played a lot of games on tight margins that could go either way. More often than not they came out on top. That’s great, but if you keep playing games like that consistently winning them isn’t sustainable.

This year there’s been progress in the set up, but overall it’s still conservative. Sunday nearly opened up for a United smash and grab win, but they were hardly deserving of three points. Most of these games have played out like that. There’s nothing wrong with smashing and grabbing — football games are won by the less “deserving” team all the time — but the results eventually even out.

This is ultimately how Solskjaer sees this squad. They’re good, they’ve made progress, but they’re not quite ready to go toe to toe with the big boys (especially if they’re carrying injuries). As such he’s going to continue approaching big games like this and there will still be dropped points to teams that they shouldn’t drop points against.

Finishing second would be great. Winning a trophy even better. It’ll be great to get a substantial increase on that points haul from last year. But ultimately the best way to judge the progress of this team is to look at the man who knows it best. When Solskjaer finally starts trying to play his game against the Big Six, that’s when we’ll know he thinks this United team are truly ready to compete.

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