Manchester United’s Transformation under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United have seven wins from seven games under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In doing so, Solskjaer has managed to get this United team to play much closer to their full capacity than Jose Mourinho. This transformation has caused intrigue amongst football fans as most began to wonder what exactly Solskjaer is doing differently to Jose Mourinho.

So, here are a few explanations behind Solskjaer’s approaches and tactics which has brought about this transformation from Mourinho’s mess.

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Rejuvenated Rashford:

Attacking football at the top level requires a level of mental fortitude which football fans often overlook. For attackers to truly be ruthless – especially when young – harmony with the rest of the team is necessary but harmony with the manager can be the line between a ‘very good’ and a ‘world class’ attacker. Mourinho’s treatment of certain players like Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford were not indicative of a manager who trying to build harmony with or amongst his players.

This meant that the likes of Rashford were unable to operate anywhere near their full capacity. United’s lackadaisical performances would rarely garner chances for Rashford to finish and when they came, he did not have the confidence to finish them. In addition to this, Rashford was often deployed on either wing in an arduous Mourinho system which did not exploit his best attacking qualities at all.

To restore the mental fortitude in his players, Solskjaer made it clear that his first changes would revolve around mentality, saying “you don’t in one week change anything, but you change the mindset”.

Under Solskjaer, Rashford has been involved in a goal every 88 minutes and has already bettered his goal tally under Mourinho this season in less than half the minutes. Solskjaer appears to be the perfect mentor for Rashford, as the United boss has reportedly urged Rashford to slot finishes past goalkeepers rather than shooting prematurely, which can be seen by his goals against Newcastle and Spurs. One such example of Rashford’s surge in confidence was the flip-flap he pulled off the build-up to United’s opening goal vs Bournemouth. One can only imagine the outcome of that same manoeuvre under Mourinho’s authority.

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Finally, Mourinho’s over-reliance on Romelu Lukaku was a major hinderance for most of United’s forwards as their playing time up front was limited. However, Solskjaer has rid Lukaku of the goal scoring burden in favour of more dynamic, free-flowing football with Martial, Rashford, Lingard and Sanchez leading the line instead.

Ole Good Vibes:

Another aspect of United’s resurgence which most fans have failed to recognise is Solskjaer’s positive man-management of his players.

1899 Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann has been quoted as saying 30% of coaching is tactics, 70% is social competence. It appears Solskjaer has adopted this approach, judging by the many anecdotal accounts from around the club since his appointment. When asked what the Norwegian has changed since his arrival at United, Ryan Giggs replied well, reminding the players how good they are.

But on the pitch, United undoubtedly look a different beast. xG is a metric which quantifies the quality of shots, taking into consideration distance and angle of the shot, speed of the attacking move, whether shot was taken with head or foot, whether the shot came from through ball or cutback etc. United’s xG under Mourinho was 1.64, whilst under Solskjaer’s seven game run this has risen significantly to 2.34. This is a testament to the freedom he has given to this talented group of players.

To many football fans, this explanation may seem insubstantial as it is driven more by common sense than real tactical nous. But this epitomises the tumultuous nature of Mourinho’s relations within Old Trafford, especially with his chief creator, Paul Pogba.

With Pogba’s brother, Mathias, announcing the problem was Mourinho, right down the line… in the locker room, everything”, with Pogba himself declaring it was difficult in the system [under Mourinho] and Zlatan Ibrahimovic revealing that Pogba and Mourinho had no mutual confidence, a new positive manager like Solskjaer will go a long way to lift the mood around the club.

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Tactics:

As backed up by the sharp upturn in United’s xG under Solskjaer, the players went forward with real intent wanting and showing for the ball. This led to players taking up better shooting positions, leading to goals. Paul Pogba has exemplified this in his creative role where he perpetually finds space between the lines and is able to play first-time passes to the advancing forward line.

However, most would have pegged Solskjaer to beat Cardiff, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Reading, especially as the United players sought to turn the corner in the season following Mourinho’s departure. If I was to be even more critical, I would suggest that failing to keep clean sheets against the likes of Cardiff, Huddersfield and Brighton means that things are far from perfect. But it was clear that Solskjaer had these players playing to a capacity which matched their quality. So, the first “test” – as it was referred to – came against Spurs at Wembley and it certainly lived up to that label.

In the first half, Tottenham saw more of the ball but struggled to get the ball into positions for Kane to profit. Meanwhile, United looked threatening on the counter. What was most intriguing about United’s attacking line was the interchangeability of Rashford, Martial and Lingard which lends to the attacking freedom Solskjaer has injected into the team. It also prevented the Spurs’ defence from attempting to man-mark United’s attackers as they occupied spaces across the final third.

As Pochettino’s Spurs is a pressing team, it was interesting to see how United both dealt with this pressure and how they would press themselves. United’s press was predicated on triggers, which means the press began whenever a Spurs player’s passing options were limited or they looked indecisive in possession. This led to United’s goal as Trippier’s pass was intercepted by Lingard, who laid if off to Pogba.

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Pogba played a well-timed pass to Rashford, through the opposite side of Tottenham’s defence, exploiting the space left between the onrushing Ben Davies and his centre backs. Having this United front line running at you would frighten most centre back pairings and Rashford’s finish illustrated this perfectly. This highlights Solskjaer’s tactical aptitude in instructing his players to press, win the ball and switch the play to the opposite side of Spurs’ defence to exploit the space in behind the full backs.

As United’s solitary goal came at the tail end of the first half, it felt like a different game in the second half as Spurs’ dominance in the game grew continually. But, as often as he’s done, United’s Spanish saviour David De Gea proved to be the difference.

The tide shifted in Spurs’ favour as Eriksen was deployed in a deeper position alongside Harry Winks, where he had more time on the ball to pick out the likes of Alli, Kane and Son. But when Solskjaer brought on Lukaku, switching United to a 4-3-3, Lingard played on the right, so he could not press the deeper Spurs midfielders as he did in the first half.

In the end, United marginally passed their big test. Although it must be iterated that Solskjaer’s tactical nous must not be underestimated or overlooked because of his exceptional man-management skills. Rather, it has been the Norwegian’s healthy blend of social competence and tactics that has been at the driving force in United’s transformation.

More recently, after Brighton’s goal, Solskjaer knew he had to preserve the three points. So, he decided against fielding Lukaku and Mata whilst United weathered the Brighton storm. Under Mourinho, the outcome would likely have been a Marouane Fellaini substitution, which happened on 45 different occasions during Mourinho’s tenure.

Almost half of the time Mourinho flung on Fellaini (48%), United needed a goal to win the game at the time of his introduction. United went on to win only eight of those fixtures. Whereas, Solskjaer’s game management saw United revert to a defensive 4-2-3-1 shape, measured substitutions and, perhaps most importantly, the players were switched on for the remainder of the game to preserve Solskjaer’s 100% record at the helm.

It certainly appears as though the United players are playing for their manager again. With Arsenal, PSG and Liverpool on the horizon, it will be interesting to see the true potential of this love affair and where United stand to finish come May.

Written by: Ahmed Shooble (@AhmedShooble)

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