How Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has tweaked Manchester United and won the manger’s job full-time

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 28, 2019

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has started his Manchester United career emphatically with the vast majority of his games in charge resulting in wins and overseeing a significant shift in mentality and approach away from that favoured by his predecessor, Jose Mourinho. The changes instituted appear not only to have energised the side, but also brought the best out of marquee players like Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford.

Solskjaer has been tactically flexible, using a variety of systems. He has shown a slight preference for an attacking 4-3-3, with one midfielder sitting slightly deeper, but has also used the 4-2-3-1 and a sort of midfield diamond set-up, while recent games have also featured a lop-sided 4-4-2, with a deep central midfield and one midfielder tucking in to play higher and in the channel.

He’s also instigated more of a pressing game at United than his predecessor, and has encouraged his players to defend with a higher line. This means that the front three or lone striker are less isolated, as the side is more horizontally compact. This compactness is crucial as it makes United harder to break down, but also allows them to transition from the defensive phase to the attacking phase more easily.

In addition, the centre-backs, especially Victor Lindelof, are given licence to carry the ball up through the first line of an opposition press. This is often aided by one of the two deeper midfielders dropping off to provide a passing option.

This allows United to generate forward momentum in the space between the first and second defensive lines of the opposition. There is also a greater degree of horizontal movement ahead with players like Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, or Antony Martial dropping off to find space, creating play between the opposition lines.

This in turn creates opportunities for quick, dynamic interchanges of pass-and-move football between a highly technical, intelligent, and quick front line, assisted by Pogba pushing forwards from his left-sided eight/ten hybrid role. The full-backs generally push quite high to provide width, although it has been noticeable in the games where a 4-4-2 is used that they are more defensively minded. Nonetheless, Solskjaer seems to have recognised that with Luke Shaw pushing up, Pogba roaming in the left half-space, and the combination play possible between players like Martial and Rashford, this represents United’s best way of taking a game to opponents and creating threatening chances.

Paul Pogba has been perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Solskjaer’s emphasis on possession, movement, and quick, dynamic interchanges. Spared many of the defensive duties that shackled him under Mourinho, Pogba is free to find space, direct play, and surge into the box to provide a goal threat.

Some of the credit for this must also go to both the midfield double pivot, usually Matic and Ander Herrera, who compensate for Pogba’s attacking emphasis, and Jesse Lingard, who is often seen dropping into space and pressing astutely to protect United’s right hand side higher up, which allows Matic and Herrera to cover slightly more across behind Pogba on the left.

Pogba’s return to form and the threat posed on United’s left-hand side also opens opportunities for the switch of play that many sides now use – stack on one side, drag the opposition over, and then quickly attack the opposite flank. With Lingard often stationed on the right, this is especially effective for United as he is so astute at exploiting space; Ashley Young and Diogo Dalot provide aggressive support from right back too which further enables United to attack the space on the right created by stacking up on the left.

Solskjaer has also shown some creative thinking when it comes to specific opposition. Against Spurs, whose full-backs push very high, Solskjaer did not push his own full-backs up to counter them, but rather invited them on. This meant that when United had the chance to counter, their wide players were often in a lot of space and one on one with Tottenham’s centre-backs, because Spurs’ full backs had been allowed to advance so high in support of the attack.

Against Arsenal in the FA Cup, Solskjaer borrowed from Roberto Martinez’s use of Romelu Lukaku during Belgium’s World Cup campaign, playing him wide right with Lingard as a false nine. This encouraged Lukaku to attack the space behind the Arsenal left back and he finished with two assists, the second for Jesse Lingard perfectly highlighting why the change worked.

And in perhaps his most famous victory so far, Solskjaer’s hand was forced by injuries and played a lop-sided 4-4-2 against PSG. This saw Eric Bailly standing in at right back with Ashley Young essentially doubling up to cover him, while Andreas Pereira pushed up from the left to play as a number ten – United consistently went long and generally played through the middle rather than looking to exploit the wide areas where PSG’s formation meant they were dominant anyway.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought variety, imagination, and enthusiasm to the United bench. None of his tactical shifts have been seismic or complex, but they have been astute and have succeeded in getting the best from key players, especially Pogba.

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