There Is No Easy Fix For Solskjaer’s One Dimensional United Team
In the 1978 film, Superman, Marlon Brando, as Superman’s father Jor-El, weighs in with his two cents on the human race. In an elegant monologue, for which Brando was famously paid a huge amount of cash, Jor-El basically says that humans spend a lot of their time being atrocious life forms, but it is for their “capacity for good” that he sends to them his only son “to show the way”.
Now, if you can forgive the tenuously-linked analogy, there is something in that Brando speech that should resonate with Manchester United fans. The team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always seems to manage to pull itself – and the fans – back from the brink, sandwiching the good (PSG, Leipzig, Newcastle), with the atrocious (Spurs, Palace) and the turgid (Chelsea, Arsenal). Solskjaer himself always seems to show that capacity for a good result, just when you thought his time might be up.
As United fans are keen to point out on social media, it’s the hope that kills you with this team. It seems hard to fathom how a team can beat the Champions League finalists and semi-finalists during the week, and then look so bereft of ideas, mental fortitude and intelligence at the weekend. Or, then again, perhaps it is easy to see why this happens. United’s genetic make-up under Solskjaer makes these kinds of Jekyll and Hyde results not just possible, but probable.
United are hedgehogs, says Wilson
In an interesting piece run after the Arsenal defeat, the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson pointed to a team that is “relentlessly reactive”. He also made his an analogy, admittedly much better than a Superman film reference, claiming that United were “hedgehogs” and good teams were “foxes”. Wilson’s point is that a hedgehog knows how to do one thing well, whereas a fox knows how to do many things.
Wilson laboured a point that most people who have watched United should be aware of; namely, that the hedgehog team can hit you on the counter-attack (relentlessly reactive) and do little else to hurt you. It was very much on evidence in both the Chelsea and Arsenal games, with the former especially happy to sit back and watch United toil.
At the Parc des Princes against PSG and when welcoming an ambitious RB Leipzig to Old Trafford a week later, Solskjaer was made to look like a master tactician when he only did what is in his nature to do. Yes, the implementation of a diamond midfield formation may have helped players like Paul Pogba, and Solskjaer deserves some credit there. Still, there was a sense that Tomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann may have fluffed their lines in not pre-empting what Solskjaer was going to do. In the Premier League, managers as diverse as Mikel Arteta, Frank Lampard and Roy Hodgson have second-guessed the Norwegian correctly.
Players’ talent should again be questioned
Where Johnathan Wilson may have erred in his analysis, however, is that having but one dimension can work in sports if those within the system are consistently excellent at implementing it. The great Spain and Barcelona teams of the 2000s didn’t really have a Plan B beyond tiki-taka-ing everyone to death, but nor did they need one. We could say the same about Jim Gavin’s brilliant Dublin GAA side of the 2010s, or even in the All-Blacks in rugby union. If you want a more relevant comparison, Real Madrid in the 2010s under Mourinho and Ancelotti produced brilliant counter-attacking football, and they did not need to adapt those tactics much.
And, that’s key to understanding United’s woes. This is a team that could be celebrated as a devastating counter-attacking outfit. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood possess the pace to do that, whereas Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba have the guile to turn defence into instant attack. United have actually been great frontrunners over the last year, punishing teams after they take the lead. United score late. Not late winners, mind. But they add goals when an opposing team is forced to throw everything at them. However, it’s misleading to say that Arsenal, Chelsea et al did not give United a chance to break, because they did on occasion, it’s just that the scant opportunities were not pounced upon by United’s forwards.
But the players, with the possible exception of Fernandes, have not been consistent enough to deliver that. Paul Pogba gets it in the neck from a lot of pundits, but the player who is arguably most emblematic of United’s failures of consistency was not even on the pitch against Chelsea and Arsenal, or the majority of the game against Spurs – Anthony Martial.
Martial now in his sixth season
Martial is a curious figure, one for whom we could once again pull out our Superman analogy. Like this United team under Solskjaer, he manages to do enough to make you think he could reach the next level, and then he disappoints. Rinse and repeat. It feels like a coin flip as to whether he will light up the place or fall flat. You’ll have as much chance of guessing the spin of the wheel of roulette at casino.com in Ireland as predicting a Martial performance. And, it’s frustrating for fans. They know that he is capable of brilliance. Bruno Fernandes aside, the Frenchman was arguably United’s best player in the post-lockdown Premier League campaign last summer.
But instead of building on the richest vein of form in his career and a recall to the French squad, Martial has looked abject this season. His lone goal came in the Leipzig rout, where Marcus Rashford almost looked like he pitied him when giving up penalty rights. Yes, he missed the games against Newcastle, Chelsea and Arsenal because he was suspended (an admittedly harsh red card against Spurs saw a three-game ban), but he was poor before that.
And yet, while Martial can infuriate United fans with his inconsistency, he might also be a victim of Solskjaer’s one-dimensional tactics. He is built to shine when United’s lightning counter-attacks materialise. He is not made to scrap his way to win headers in a crowded box à la Duncan Ferguson or Andy Carroll, nor is he the man for a scrappy last-minute winner after sticking a toe out from a melee. As such, there is not much for Martial to offer the Plan B or C. To an extent, we could say similar things about Rashford and Greenwood.
The point here is that United are equipped to play ‘Solskjaer-ball’, but they do not excel at it enough – or consistently enough – for it to work all the time. Players like Edinson Cavani might give them another option, but the Uruguayan is hardly a long term solution. Solskjaer might get pilloried for having but one plan, but it is the only one that suits the personnel at this disposal. There is no easy fix here. But if the Norwegian can come up with a Plan B that works for his hedgehogs, and he has earned a chance to try, then there might finally be a consensus that he deserves the job at Old Trafford.