Manchester United don't have a consistent style of play, still get plenty of wins yet are frustrating to watch. What's the issue here?
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has to be in one of the strangest positions in the game of football right now. On one hand, the former United striker has done much to transform the side in recent times. Indeed, one would argue he’s done more than any manager post Sir Alex Ferguson to get United back in a position to compete for top honours. Despite that, there are always question marks over the job security of the Norwegian. The pattern has continued on so far this season. Dominant wins early on have given way to a frustrating run of results. And the latest of those – a 1-1 draw against Everton – was one of the key talking points coming out of this week. And has also raised those familiar old questions.
It is worth noting, mind you, that these doubts aren’t seemingly in the minds of the United hierarchy. The board are, by all accounts, well behind Solksjaer at this point. And it would take results absolutely falling off the cliff for a change of heart to take place.
However, while they haven’t quite fallen off a cliff, they are definitely closer to the edge than they were a month ago. And that is precisely why the questions are being asked.
Of course, it is worth noting that Solksjaer has weathered previous storms in strong fashion. The real question for him, however, is what more he can do to ensure less of these storms arise.
The biggest criticism of Solksjaer at this point is that despite the length of his tenure, Manchester United don’t have a ste style of play.
United are something of a reactive side under Solksjaer, changing systems and personnel to suit the opposition. This works well against the more dominant sides, but not with sides where United must take the initiative.
United often struggle against sides that are defensive in nature. The reason they struggle is because their attacking system… isn’t really a system.
The side are highly reliant on individuals to weave moments of magic and win games. Given United boast the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani and even Jesse Lingard in attack, it is not the worst idea in the world.
However, modern football is predicated on having a defined system with players given specific tactical instructions. The likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel are fine examples of getting it right in this regard.
All three managers will make tactical tweaks when needed, but have a set and defined system that is their favoured one. Klopp’s Liverpool rely on fast passing, a hard-working midfield and pacy forwards along with attacking full-backs. Guardiola’s City is similar, although it’s more technical than physical.
Tuchel’s Chelsea play with a back three that allows them to both defend and attack with at least five men at all times. Wingbacks provide the width, whereas the attacking midfielders and strikers crowd the penalty box.
It’s a simplistic view of all three sides, but you get the point. Yet ask any fan to sum up how United play and you are bound to get contrasting answers.
The idea of having a set style of play is not new in football. Some managers are rigid, others more flexable; yet the idea of a team possessing a footballing identity has been around for a long time now.
Manchester United, at present, don’t have a defined identity. And that becomes a problem when the individual players fail to deliver those magic moments of their own.
One of Klopp’s biggest struggles when he first came to England was breaking down teams that ‘parked the bus’. Rather than give his players more freedom to move forward – a tactic that would leave them exposed on the counter-attack – Klopp instead looked for different solutions.
The more noticeable one was when Liverpool looked to create an overload on one side, before switching the play. This was aided by their use of attacking full-backs Trent Alexandor-Arnold and Andy Robertson. The use of Roberto Firmino as a False 9 also helped. His movement would draw defenders out of position, leaving room for the other attackers to take up.
Guardiola, for his part, adopted a myriad of strategies – from using a False 9 to occasionally employing two strikers or, at times, no defensive midfielder. Notably, the solution came from the training ground and not the players.
The other issue is that modern players are used to playing in systems designed speicifically for the team. One of the reasons Sancho has struggled so badly is due to United’s incohesiveness in attack.
At Dortmund, he knew his role and was familiar of what to do in a variety of situations. At United, he’s not playing in his favoured role and neither is he in a fully-formed tactical system.
Amazingly, yes. And that is the thing – this United side are inconsistent, but they still get results. Still, their inconsistency has been down purely to coming up against sides who are better drilled, sides that have a preferred gameplan.
The Everton side they drew against featured mostly players who cost a fraction of what United’s superstars did. The reason Everton looked better was because they are a better-coached side.
The same happened against BSC Young Boys in the Champions League. Leaving aside Lingard’s late howler, the Swiss team looked like a side with a clear idea of how they should play.
Of course, there is still time for Manchester United to turn the tide. But time is in short supply for Solksjaer and co. as the team are set for a crucial round of games after the international break.
None of the games will be easy, yet United can’t afford any bad results. Dropping of points will dent their trophy-winning hopes for the season – and add to the pressure on their manager.
United have done well to get results till now. A change in approach, however, might just help them gain more consistency. There’s no time like the present for that to happen.