Hangover: Part IV – Manchester United Edition – and remedies to cure it

The night of 6th March 2019 will go down as one of the finest in the history of Manchester United. What Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men achieved that night was beyond impossible. Never before in the grand history of the European Cup had a team recovered from a 2-0 deficit at home to go and qualify for the next round. But Rashford’s thumping penalty, deep into stoppage time, sent millions of United fans around the world into rapturous celebrations. 

Solskjaer had done it, yet again. His team had indeed climbed the mountains that he had said were there to be climbed. It seemed like Solskjaer couldn’t do anything wrong. But then came the hangover from that night in Paris. Solskjaer, who had lost just one match before that night, lost back to back games that saw the Red Devils crash out of the FA Cup and lose the 4th place to Arsenal in the league.

Three days after the PSG result, United faced Arsenal at the Emirates. Spurs’ loss at St.Mary’s had opened up the top four race and a positive result at the Emirates would have strengthened United’s position in that race. Arsenal won 2-0 and to be fair, it wasn’t a result that the Gunners deserved. Granit Xhaka’s speculative shot, aided by the wind, bamboozled De Gea completely and their second goal was from the penalty spot. United did create a fair amount of chances in between and struck the post twice and on any other day, the result would have been quite the opposite.

After this loss in London, Ole had a week to prepare his boys for the crucial FA Cup Quarterfinal tie against Wolves at the Molineaux. Wolves have been labelled as the giant-killers of this season and rightly so. Their form against top six opposition, especially at home is quite good. Before this game, they had beaten Liverpool and Chelsea at the Molineaux while also holding defending champions Manchester City early in the season. 

Despite the wobble at the Emirates, Ole’s United were the favourites to go through. But when the final whistle blew, the scoreline read Wolverhampton Wanderers 2, Manchester United 1. It was not the defeat that shocked the United fans but it was the manner of the defeat. It was a shocking performance where the Red Devils, despite playing a full strength team, failed to impose themselves on the game. The quartet of Martial, Lingard, Rashford, and Pogba failed to create any decent openings in the game and were constantly let down by either poor passing or poor decision making. Wolves did what Wolves do best, stay compact and frustrate the opposition and then hit the other team with scintillating counter attacks. But we need to dive a little deeper to see what caused United problems in these games and why they did lose. 

Firstly, if we notice the three games Manchester United have lost under Solskjaer, they have been when the opponent has used a formation of three defenders at the back with two wingbacks. PSG, Arsenal and now Wolves had numbers at the back that didn’t offer any space for United’s pacy front three to run into. This made United’s attack toothless and frustrated the midfield of United, forcing them to make more and more mistakes. 

Secondly, the manager failed to act quickly to influence the match from his substitutions and allowed the game to drift away from the team. There is no problem at all in believing in your starting XI and thinking that they can still win the game for you but world’s best managers are paid millions of pounds to be that extra bit smart and cunning to win big games by grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck and changing the tactics midway through the game.

The third reason for this slump in results has been a lot of individual errors. Whether it was from De Gea in London or from Dalot and Shaw in Wolverhampton, lapses in concentration from goalkeepers or defenders are something that surely will not go unpunished at this level of football. But it’s not just them that have been poor. The attackers, especially Anthony Martial and Rashford have been huge disappointments. The Frenchman looked uninterested and out of ideas against Wolves and hardly troubled Matt Doherty all night. The case of Marcus Rashford is entirely a different one. Yes, he did control his nerves for that emphatic penalty against Buffon in Paris but ever since his injury against Liverpool, he hasn’t looked like a Manchester United striker. He fails to make smart runs in spaces and even when he has received the ball, his finishing has let him down. Marcus Rashford of first two months under Ole seems to have lost his way. Also, the strange decisions from him, like shooting from improbable angles and distances are quite frustrating for the fans, especially when there is a better option available. He surely has a great technique of shooting the ball but to think that every long shot would end up like Ronaldo’s did in Porto’s net ten years ago is simply delusional.

We had a look at the problems but now we will look into what the baby faced assassin can do to overturn this bad run of form. For the first problem of being inactive off the bench, Ole has shown glimpses of his tactical ideas when he didn’t hesitate one bit to replace Eric Bailly midway through the first half in Paris and switch from 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3. The introduction of Diogo Dalot on the right wing changed the game for his team and United ended up winning the tie. Also, earlier in his reign, we have seen him outsmart Emery and Pochettino by playing two split strikers. But he needs to be more of this cleverness, especially when things are not going his way in a crucial game.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, understandably, is a huge fan of Sir Alex Ferguson and talks a lot about the great manager but one important lesson he can borrow from Sir Alex’s book of management is a brave and a great manager should not be scared to take decisions that aren’t popular but he knows that it is the correct one. The likes of Rashford and Lingard did deliver for the Norwegian in his first few months but their poor form is now holding the team back. Despite playing horribly in these games, they hardly ever are the ones who get substituted. 

One of the key factors for Solskjaer’s success at United so far has been how he changed the mood of the dressing room and made it a happy place once again. But another trait of great managers is how he manages different characters inside the dressing room. The arm around shoulder approach has surely worked for the likes of Pogba and Rashford but certain players like Martial have regressed under Ole. The Frenchman has just 2 Premier League goals since the Norwegian was made the boss, as compared to 7 goals in 9 starts under Jose Mourinho. He has also signed a new 5-year deal which was great news for every United fan but his attitude and effort on the pitch have been considerably poor ever since then. Maybe Solskjaer has to change his approach towards certain players, like his idol Sir Alex used to do, be gentle to some and unleash the hair dryer for others.

Despite the upset in the FA Cup, United still have a top-four place to fight for. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a brilliant job by keeping United in this race. Along with this, the epic Champions League Quarter Final tie with Barcelona awaits. On paper, there is no match between the two sides but European nights are magical and nothing can be ruled out. If Solskjaer does get his tactics right and motivates his men again, there certainly will be hope for United fans as they will have a chance to end the season on a high.

Author: TUD Author