Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could hardly have asked for an easier start to life as Manchester United manager, but nevertheless the manner of their 8-2 aggregate wins over Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town point to an expansive, joyful future under the new head coach.
Here are five things we have learned from watching the Norwegian’s first two games in charge:
Fluidity of Rashford, Lingard & Martial in attack
Aside from a general upturn in tempo and progressive pass selection (more on that below), the single biggest change is how Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard have been used as a fluid front three – with Juan Mata and Angel Gomes backing up well.
Solskjaer recognises that positional interchanging is of paramount importance to high-tempo football and appears to have instructed his young attackers to play narrowly, staying close to one another in order to maximise short-passing options in the area usually occupied by the number 10.
Against Cardiff, Martial and Lingard frequently drifted into central attacking midfield as Rashford dropped deep like a number 10, creating an overload that helped United swarm and dominate their opponents. This was most notable in the superb one-touch move for the third United goal, but was a feature throughout the 90 minutes.
Lingard, Martial, and Rashford are highly intelligent footballers with an unusual ability to find space for themselves - qualities that were criminally under-exploited by Jose Mourinho, a dogmatic manager with a very rigid structure.
Lingard and Rashford work particularly well together, regularly swapping positions and constantly on the move; Cardiff were pulled out of their shape and gradually became more confused by the speed of United’s interplay.
Huddersfield weren’t so easily distracted, although Angel Gomes’s bright cameo for the final 10 minutes – brought on when Solskjaer could easily have made a defensive substitution – suggests a scurrying front three is part of the Norwegian’s long-term plan.
Risk-taking & quick forward passes trigger attacking football
What stood out most clearly from Solskjaer’s first two games in charge is the emphasis on risk-taking. Freed from the shackles of Mourinho, the United players are obviously revelling in the instruction to get creative in all areas of the pitch.
This includes the licence to take on your man instead of turn and pass it backwards, to bust a gut to make a decoy run instead of holding your position, and to try the 15-yard vertical pass instead of the safe sideways option.
Fred and Nemanja Matic weren’t so good at doing this against Huddersfield, but the defence have taken to it surprisingly well. David de Gea is passing the ball out from the back more frequently than before, while Victor Lindelof has transformed overnight into a marauding centre-half. The Sweden international can now be found playing one-twos and sprinting into the opposition half with an attacking purpose not even Paul Pogba could muster under Mourinho (see all his touches against Huddersfield on the graphic below).
This progressive attitude has a psychological and tactical advantage. By moving forward in possession Lindelof lifts the atmosphere inside Old Trafford and helps maintain a sense of urgency, instigating the ‘wave-after-wave’ attacking mentality that characterised Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach.
But it also means United break the first line of the opposition defence without their creative players needing to come short, as they so often did under Mourinho. A centre-back piercing the lines allows everyone to step forward, forcing the opponent to press (and thus come out of their shape) before the ball has reached the more dangerous players.
Recycler Herrera has huge role to play
Solskjaer’s biggest problem so far has been maintaining energy in central midfield. Things were fairly static for the first hour against Huddersfield, primarily because Fred and Nemanja Matic struggled in possession. Fred is still adapting to the pace of English football while Matic isn’t capable of incisive forward passes or sudden bursts of pace.
United moved up through the gears after Ander Herrera’s introduction in the 54th minute, with the Spaniard’s nippy, scuttling playing style helping Solskjaer’s side to shift the ball with greater urgency. He also set up Pogba’s first goal with a neat assist that effectively ended the contest.
Herrera’s influence on Boxing Day came as no surprise after his commanding performance in the win at Cardiff (see graphic above for all his passes in that game, with only four unsuccessful attempts all match in yellow). The Spaniard was everywhere that day, setting the tone with constant give-and-gos, darting up and down the centre-right channel to connect United’s defence with the front three.
Herrera – a calming presence in midfield - will no doubt play a big role under Solskjaer throughout the rest of the season.
Pogba has been given free role he craves
Paul Pogba is an enigma chiefly because he wants to be involved in every move in every area of the pitch, believing himself to be the complete footballer despite his poor positional play and inability to track back effectively. He is a park player: a luxury playmaker at heart who sees himself as an all-action midfield engine.
And so Solskjaer deserves credit for giving Pogba total freedom, rather than attempting to clip his wings as Mourinho did. Pogba is the most talented player at the club on his day, and those days will become more frequent if the French
World Cup winner is made to feel special. If he wants to drop deep and pretend he’s Luka Modric, let him. If he fancies a stroll down the left wing because Martial’s having a good game and he wants in, let him.
Paradoxically, Solskjaer appears to be building the team around Pogba by ensuring the defensive and attacking structures are robust enough without him. The result has been the return of Pogba’s swagger, scoring and creating with the sort of idiosyncratic magic that justifies letting this maverick genius go rogue.
Full-backs starting higher up pitch
In Mourinho’s final win as United manager, a 4-1 defeat of Fulham, Diogo Dalot and Ashley Young excelled as roaming full-backs. United looked to get the ball out wide as quickly as possible and cross into the box, winning the match thanks to this attritional wing-focused style. It was classic Fergie-era football but, inevitably, it was just a one off.
Solskjaer was a key player during the years when Gary Neville and Denis Irwin would overlap constantly while David Beckham and Ryan Giggs swung crosses in from deep. The Norwegian knows what the ‘United Way’ means, which is why Luke Shaw and Dalot will play key roles.
Already the full-backs are holding higher starting positions than under Mourinho, although so far Shaw, Dalot, Antonio Valencia, and Young have all failed to make significant contributions. You can see the intent is there, but it might take some time before Mourinho’s ultra-conservative instructions are wiped from the muscle memory of the United full-backs.