Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - caught in two ̷m̷i̷n̷d̷s̷ philosophies
The Manchester United boss has a blueprint for winning big matches but is it harming the team's progression?
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It again felt like one step forward and two steps back for Manchester United last week as they followed up a very impressive 5-0 victory over RB Leipzig in the Champions League with an uninspired 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal in the Premier League.
To a lesser degree, it was a similar week to the one prior, beating French champions Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 at the Parc des Princes before only managing a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford four days later.
Obviously, fixtures against neither Arsenal nor Chelsea can be considered as automatic victories, however, the manner in which both weeks played out did fittingly summarise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time at Old Trafford to date.
We can’t ignore some of the good work he’s done at the club so far, bringing about only their second top-three league finish last season since the departure of Alex Ferguson back 2013. They also reached the semi-finals in each of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League in that same campaign.
Beyond this, there’s also evidence to suggest that he is trying to implement a footballing philosophy mirroring that of most top sides from across Europe. This being in trying to dominate opponents by utilising possession-based principles.
These principles usually involve seeing more of the ball than your opponents, pressing high up the pitch and attempting to pin them back into their own half with a high defensive line. In England currently, these are the sorts of characteristics that we associate with the league’s top two sides, Liverpool and Manchester City.
To capture United’s changing philosophy under Solskjaer, we can take a look at the evolution of David De Gea’s distribution from goal kicks in recent seasons.
We look at this because, despite a keeper being the deepest player on the pitch, they tend to commence most attacking moves, therefore the way in which they do so tells us a lot.
In a direct team, you’ll often see a high proportion of kicks from the goalkeeper going long in order to get as high up the pitch as quickly as possible. However, it’s the opposite for teams who like to deploy a possession-based game.
The below graphic highlights how last season, United had the shortest average goal kick length in the league.
Additionally, the below visualisation illustrates how De Gea has adjusted his passing behaviours across the previous two seasons.
In the 2018/19 campaign, the one in which Solskjaer took over at the midway point of the season, United had the ninth-lowest percentage of long goal kick attempts and ranked tenth for the average shortest goal kick distance.
Last season, Solskjaer’s first full one at Old Trafford, United rose to the top in both departments, and they’re posting similar numbers again so far this term.
Whilst the above highlights how Solskjaer’s philosophy is beginning to take shape at Old Trafford, it still seems that United’s default tactic for victory in big fixtures has been reverting away from a ball-dominating game, to a counter-attacking one.
They lost just two league games against members of the traditional ‘top six’ last season, despite their opponents recording a higher possession average in all but two of those ten encounters.
Additionally, in their two most notable victories against PSG and RB Leipzig this season, they saw less of the ball than their opponents.
Therefore there’s an argument to say that although playing this way in these fixtures has delivered results, it’s been largely counterproductive in terms of trying to refine a philosophy centred around passing and retaining the ball.
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This could be why we have often seen United follow up eye-catching victories against top opponents with underwhelming results against inferior sides in perceived elementary fixtures. It could also be the reason Solskjaer seems unable to settle on a fixed formation, playing a 4-3-1-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond across their previous four fixtures alone(!)
Not only could this drastic and regular change in playing philosophies be damaging in terms of impacting the fluidity in which United master a game centred around possession, but it can also have a domino effect on other areas too.
One of which is player recruitment, with defender Harry Maguire being a good example.
The England international usually produces his best defensive performances when United’s line of defence is deeper. As a player, he is a good tackler and an imposing aerial presence, managing to clear away most lofted balls aimed towards the United penalty area.
Yet, when United opt to play a high line in games they’re aiming to dominate the ball in, weaknesses such as his lack of pace can often be exposed, much to the detriment of the side.
If United were to have a more defined philosophy loosely based around one way of playing, rather than two rather polar opposites, then it becomes easier to identify players with a profile best suited.
Although it’s to be expected that some adjustments can be made to the way a team plays based on the strengths of the opposition, there is an argument to say that the current modifying and reshaping by Solskjaer from game to game is too extreme.
If the current United boss does have aspirations for his side to become a team that dominates in most areas of the pitch, then the important next stage of that evolution is to impose themselves in a similar manner when facing not only inferior opponents but also the top teams too.
Failure to do so will most likely damage United’s progression in the long term and maybe even his job at the club.
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