United’s Possession Issues Under Solskjær
Reflecting on United’s offensive woes.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed as permanent Manchester United manager, there was seemingly a wave of optimism surrounding the club, with much hype about the possibility of United returning to the top with a club legend as coach. After only a few months in his first full season though, United find themselves in seventh place, with underlying numbers that suggest significant problems in the attacking department. In this piece, we reflect on some of the returning offensive tactical problems Solskjær’s squad is facing.
Written by Josh Manley.
In Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s spell as interim manager, it looked on the surface as if Manchester United had finally found the right coach to rebuild the club. They enjoyed a hot streak of results, culminating in their dramatic Champions League comeback against PSG, as Solskjær went on to secure the job on a permanent basis.
Already though, there were signs in the underlying numbers that their impressive run of results under Solskjær was not sustainable. Now, these concerns seem to have been vindicated, as this season the league table does not reflect well on Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United. With roughly one third of the season played, United find themselves seventh in the league table and nine points removed from a Champions League spot. And to be frank, United’s underlying offensive numbers do not offer much consolation.
What do the numbers say?
The good news is that under Solskjær, United have steadied the ship defensively. Ten goals conceded in ten games is by all means acceptable for a team whose short-term goal is to finish in the top four. What’s more, in terms of expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. conceded, only Leicester and Liverpool did better than United’s 11.6 so far this season.
Not conceding is one thing, but at some point a manager would like to see some goals on the board as well. With just thirteen goals scored, it is quite clear that United are lacking offensive firepower. What about their 19.3 expected goals created, does that not show we are merely looking at finishing issues? Issues that might resolve themselves over time?
There is a fairly simple answer to be found by splitting the chances into open play and set-pieces. United have benefitted from no less than six penalties, which has significantly inflated their expected goals tally. The fact they managed to miss four penalties already only adds to the misery felt by United fans right now.
Adding to that misery is the general feeling that the team simply fails to create from open play, a feeling backed up by the numbers. United’s 8.9 expected goals from open play rank them sixteenth in the league. It is less than half of what Chelsea have created. Efficient finishing has in part covered up United’s horrific open play chance creation, with Daniel James in particular starting off on a hot finishing streak.
Now what could be the reasons that Solskjær, a renowned attacker for United himself, has so far failed to get his team on track offensively?
Offensive ideas under Solskjær
On the short term, the job of a manager is obviously to make the most of the squad available to him, while on the medium to long term he could try and mold the squad to his preferred style of play. Given United’s current squad, clearly coming off a Jose Mourinho spell, it makes perfect sense to shy away from patient possession play and instead focus on creating off transitions.
For most of Solskjær’s time as United manager, they have excelled at creating off transition play. Examples of this could be seen in key games early in Solskjær’s reign such as away at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, and away at Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup. The results in these games undeniably played a part in Solskjær getting the United job, rightly or wrongly.
Aside from the occasional use of 5-3-2 formations, Solskjær last season primarily utilized narrow 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 systems at United. These systems were focused on counterattacking with the likes of Rashford and Martial as wide forwards running into the channels between the opposition’s fullback and center-back.
This season, until the game against Liverpool at least, Solskjær has stayed loyal to the 4-2-3-1 system he began using throughout United’s pre-season tour. What has remained constant is the focus on exploiting the space behind the opponent’s defense, and counterattacking whenever possible.
United’s nominal formation and starting eleven this season.
United easily forced wide
It is all well and good to focus on counterattacking, but at some point during the game any team will need to string some possession play together. This is particularly the case at a team chasing a top four spot, regularly being confronted with opponent’s happy to sit back in a medium or even a deep defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block.
A key problem for United’s possession game is the ease with which opponents can force the center-backs’ passes to go wide to the fullbacks, rather than progressing through central areas. This reduces United’s variability in attack, since fullbacks naturally have more limited passing options due to being close to the touchline.
This is not helped by the player profiles at fullback for United. One of the weak points in their side is the continued presence of Ashley Young, a very limited player who still gets regular minutes on either side of United’s defense.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka meanwhile has solid ball-playing skills but is not the creative ball-progressing fullback seen in other top European clubs. As such, constructing a system where Wan-Bissaka is one of the main players relied on for ball-progression is perhaps not the wisest move.
This lends itself to rather predictable U-shaped circulation When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . from United, or to speculative passes into the channels to the likes of Rashford and James running in behind opposition fullbacks.
Part of the reason for the ease with which United are forced into wide areas is the way in which the midfield and attack are structured. A crucial element to be able to progress the ball through the center of midfield is the positioning of the two holding midfielders. These positions have usually been occupied by Scott McTominay alongside either Fred or Paul Pogba, with the latter having struggled with injury recently.
The two holding midfielders in United’s 4-2-3-1 system are often positioned rather flat in front of the center-backs. This is exacerbated when Fred plays, as Pogba is more likely to drop off and look to create a passing angle in order to play forward.
Example of how the flat positioning of a double pivot can make it easier for opponents to cover passes into them. Even if they were to receive in this situation, it’s unlikely they would be able to turn and play forward.
Often though, when the holding midfielders are positioned in the same vertical line as each center-back, the angles to receive are relatively poor. This means that they often end up just returning the ball to the center-backs again rather than being able to open up and play forward.
McTominay will occasionally drop off to the side of the center-backs to make an angle, or drift into higher positions between the lines, which can help somewhat. In terms of general performance, McTominay’s continued improvement has been one of the bright points of the season for United.
Even with the two central midfielders not always being able to contribute optimally, it would still be possible to progress vertically through the center-backs finding the attacking midfielders directly with line-breaking passes, especially with the relatively strong buildup abilities of Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire.
At United, this vertical passing happens on occasion, but due to the inconsistent manner with which the attacking midfielders occupy the spaces between lines, this is not a regular pattern. There are times where the nominal number ten and one or both wingers will occupy the space between lines, but there are also a lot of sequences where the wingers will be too focused on moving into depth or just not showing for the ball.
Manchester United’s passmap against Newcastle United: an example of u-shaped circulation and not being able to reach the forward players.
Lack of solutions for the fullbacks
Given United’s difficulties building through the center, the fullbacks often find themselves heavily involved in trying to progress the ball. This is not inherently bad, as plenty of teams find success through wing-focused possession games while not being great at progressing centrally. Within the Premier League, a prime example can be found at Liverpool, where both fullbacks often act as wide playmakers, effectively progressing the ball up the pitch.
The problem is that United’s wing play also is not that good, and is rather one-dimensional. Instead of recirculating the ball into midfield, United are incredibly direct and heavily reliant on exploiting the space behind the opponent’s defense directly with passes into the channels for usually Rashford or James to chase.
Scene from United’s game at Newcastle United, with Diogo Dalot in possession.
Once the ball reaches the fullback, United have limited variability in terms of where their buildup can go next. The central midfielders are – again – often not in good positions to receive effectively, and they often lack diagonal forward options to move the ball inside. It is hard not to see the absence of Ander Herrera here, whose role in the team has not been adequately replaced.
What often happens on the right side is Pereira pulling out wide to receive to feet, and Rashford running into the channel for the direct pass. In either case, the conditions receiving the ball for each player are not especially great, and this makes it difficult for their next action to be a positive one.
The passes over the top to Rashford can be a good way to gain territory, but he often lacks support once he receives the ball, and there is a significant chance of a ball loss with this kind of pass anyway. Rashford rarely shows for a pass into feet in these situations – a classic Liverpool pattern – even though there may be open diagonal routes for the fullback to find him.
On the left side, it seems relatively common for the number ten, usually Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard, to drift over towards the touchline. This can be combined with movement into depth from James in order to pin the opposition fullback and open the space further for the number ten to receive.
Scene from the game against Newcastle United, depicting a common situation for United with the ball on the left.
Again United they run into the problem that there is no option inside, as the player most likely to be occupying the space between lines has already drifted outside the opponent’s shape. Therefore, United once more ends up seeking speculative passes in behind the defense.
Player profiles in the number ten role
The tactical struggles in United’s buildup play have been clear, and they have shown limited mechanisms to escape the wide areas and progress the ball into dangerous zones. However, along with tactical issues, there is also clearly a personnel problem contributing to United’s poor chance creation.
Arguably the biggest problem is the lack of players who can operate between the lines at the highest level, with the ability to receive and turn in tight spaces and find incisive passes in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Pretty much all elite teams in European football have at least one player who can do this.
The only player who comes close to filling these criteria is Pogba, who in this system occupies a deeper role. Even though Pogba enjoys some positional freedom, it is difficult to rely on him to be creating from deep as well as being the one receiving passes between the lines.
The other players in the squad who would like to stake a claim for this number ten type of role do not live up to the standards required in terms of their individual skill sets. Mata has clear quality, but has the tendency to drift out of games, and is not as good at receiving under pressure as one would want.
Lingard meanwhile picks up great positions and demonstrates good tactical understanding, but his technique can let him down, and his decision making on the ball is quite cautious. As such, he often fails to provide the creative spark necessary for United.
This is especially the case under Solskjær, as opposed to under José Mourinho who for reasons that are not entirely clear, seemed to have a habit of getting very high standard performances out of Lingard which have not been replicated since.
Andreas Pereira is another player who has been getting a lot of first team action. He is clearly a player with good technical skills, but when it comes to strategic understanding and decision making, he does not seem to be at the required level.
The last candidate would be Angel Gomes, who has had limited first team minutes, but has shown flashes of potential. Receiving well in tight spaces is something which seems to be in his skill set. Although still only nineteen years of age, he is arguably already better in this aspect than United’s other number tens. But he is still developing as a player and likely not ready to be relied on yet, with the Europa League being his most likely source of first team minutes.
United’s league results, as well as their underlying numbers, demonstrate that there are significant issues for them when it comes to creating chances. This can be partially traced back to their buildup play, where they are easily forced to play into wide areas, which they then have limited solutions to escape from. Furthermore, on an individual level, they lack a number ten who is consistently decisive in key areas of the pitch.