Oh my eyes, what is this I’m seeing?
The Ole In or Ole Out debate rages but one thing that I think we can all agree on is that performances on the pitch aren’t great and haven’t been for some time.
Tactically it’s hard to describe a style or focus of play that defines Manchester United, so let’s look at the formation. Whilst not used in every game, the 4-3-3 formation appears to really be what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is attempting to use. The back four, with three midfield players and two wide players has meant the striker is playing a lone role for the majority of the season so far, but is it working? To an extent.
Is Solskjaer getting the midfield tactics right?
Most would agree that Scott McTominay has come into his own this year and Paul Pogba is a big miss in the centre of the park, but does this mean 4-3-3 is the right formation to use and is it effective with or without those players in it? I would suggest that we have just one out and out defensive midfielder and that’s Nemanja Matic. Unfortunately he’s slow, cumbersome and looks like his finest years are behind him. However, this system doesn’t really suit him anyway because he’s expected to be bringing the ball out and be part of the transition from attack to defence.
McTominay has the ability to work and transition in both the attacking and defensive phases of play but neither appears to be his strength or focus as he’s still learning his trade. Is it helpful to him to use this system? Possibly not.
Then we come to the enigma that is Paul Pogba. When fit and not playing basketball in Zinedine Zidane’s garden he’s been a one-good-game-in-three man, which is quite some way from his performances in the black and white stripes of Juventus.
Again his style of play really suits a system that’s got more rigid cover and a confidence that he has the freedom to roam around and cause teams problems without one eye on the defensive side of the game. Add in Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard who have similar traits and it starts to look like maybe there’s an issue for Solskjaer here.
Fred can be useful
One note of contention here, and I’m sure not many will agree, is Fred.
For me Fred is getting some unfair criticism and isn’t really being used for what he is; a link man from defence to attack. His range of passing isn’t that of a Paul Scholes and his tackling isn’t like Roy Keane’s but he really isn’t seen for what he does well and that’s recycling the ball to the players that need it.
In Solskjaer’s current setup he’s a luxury because there isn’t much quality in there and he ends up being relied upon to do more than he’s used to or capable of. In a team with a fit Pogba and a world class defensive midfielder alongside him he should be the man to not waste a pass in our half and then to take risks with the ball to find the runs of Pogba and other in the opposition’s half.
Currently he has very little to hit from a young and inexperienced attacking unit and is playing deep in his own half. However, he’s still in the top 10 in the Premier League for pass completion with 86.7% success rate as it stands. Compared to Pereira at 76% and Pogba at 80.7% he really does a decent job of moving the ball on and keeping the team ticking over quickly. Unfortunately when your options are passing to Pereira or a centre-half, as the wingers are high and wide and the striker is surrounded by 2-3 players, he doesn’t have much to hit to hence why you see him go sideways and backwards a lot.
No Tactical Plan B
So does the system suit the players? The long and short of it is no it doesn’t and it’s half the issue currently plaguing this Manchester United team with the other half being injuries. After seeing Louis van Gaal play a system that didn’t suit the team, Jose Mourinho came in and played what was perceived as a negative system (for me it was covering the cracks and may well have been different this year) but now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t seem to be doing much to help the team by playing to their strengths. He seems to want to run aimlessly at teams and blow them away with pace. If it works we win. If it doesn’t there isn’t a Plan B.
From my time in coaching and football I would say something that top coaches do is pick a system that suits the players they have at their disposal, barring Sir Alex Ferguson who could win at Highbury with John O’Shea and Ji-Sung Park in central midfield. For me we need to go back to defensive basics. We have some useful weapons going forward but adding in being defensively strong with pace on the counter attack makes us far more difficult to play against.
How do we become defensively strong then? Structure and regimented positioning bring defensive strength. If we have a player whose sole job is to cover the front of the back four and stop teams playing through us we could make our defence’s lives a lot easier. The Sheffield United and Aston Villa games are prime examples of when the goals have come from the opposition midfielders coming through to be against our defence. It’s really not what you want as it means we are getting overloaded. We need to task a player with stopping this – it could be Matic, a youth player or even a Phil Jones or Marcos Rojo with a simple sole-defensive task.
Once this happens defenders can concentrate on the strikers and stopping crosses, not having to worry about other runners into the box, too. Using Pereira to do this or Fred isn’t playing to their strengths as neither are physically demanding players or particularly defensively minded.
We also need a process for winning balls in the air inside this formation. The zonal structure we are currently utilising seriously exposes Victor Lindelof and teams are picking up on it and targeting him. Nominating a player to go and win the ball and asking another to drop off isn’t pretty but it’s effective.
Harry Maguire is here to make an impact and we all know he’s very dominant in the air. If he is given the task of competing for the majority of the high balls, Lindelof can drop off and guard against the flick on. Defensive managers like Tony Pulis and co are big advocates of this and it gets results in the short term. In the long term we need two commanding centre-backs!
All in all the issue we face currently is that we aren’t getting the best out of the squad. Solskjaer is used to seeing United with world class players that can play anywhere and do a decent job, who know the role in each position inside out and we don’t have them right now. Now he’s got to coach tactics, set patterns of play and make the team function even with injuries. Currently he isn’t or can’t.