Manchester United are back playing in Azerbaijan and other unheard of destinations on Thursday nights in the Europa League after crashing out of the Champions League on Tuesday night against RB Leipzig.
It was 41 days since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recorded perhaps the biggest result of his managerial career at United when his side demolished Julian Nagelsmann’s side 5-0 at Old Trafford. The victory over RB Leipzig at home made it two consecutive wins against the two best teams in the “group of death” and put Solskjaer’s men top of the group in cruise control. The Red Devils lost three of the four remaining fixtures of the group stages which coincided with failing to qualify for the Champions League knockout phases and having to settle for a place in the knockout phases of the Europa League.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure as manager of Manchester United in the last two years can be described as stratospheric highs and rock bottom lows. The elimination at the hands of Julian Naglesmann’s impressive RB Leipzig is the latest low coming from Solskjaer’s Jekyll and Hyde Manchester United. The question being asked since Solskjaer was appointed as the permanent manager of the Red Devils in March 2019 by the majority of fans is he the right man to bring the club forward to the next level. Solskjaer’s tactical naivety and ineptitude has cost United when playing against the biggest clubs which was evident against PSG at Old Trafford when the Norwegian failed to replace Fred at half time even though he was carrying a yellow card. Ole decided to keep the Brazilian on after half time which back fired when Fred got sent off for a rash challenge 13 minutes later leaving the Red Devils down to 10 men against the dangerous PSG. Solskjaer did not react quick enough which resulted in United getting bet 3-1 by PSG at Old Trafford which contributed to United failing to gain qualification to the next phase of the Champions League.
The Norwegian’s tactical naivety was evident from his baffling starting XI against RB Leipzig. Solskjaer adapted an extremely defensive system playing with his preferred (3-5-2) formation and starting seven defensive players in a game United needed a result. The line-up consisted of (De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, Telles, McTominay, Matic, Bruno Fernandes, Greenwood, Rashford) which was an extremely defensive approach from Solskjaer and his coaching staff. United were trying to combat Julian Nagelsmann’s aggressive Leipzig’s high pressing and tactical flexibility by playing seven defensive minded players and trying to catch them on the counter attack through Rashford and Greenwood’s pace.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s negative tactical approach was blown apart inside two minutes when high flying Leipzig wing-back Angelino drilled a magnificent half volley straight inside David de Gea’s far post. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was caught sleeping and gave Angelino acres of space allowing him to take full advantage of a wonderful pass from Marcel Sabitzer to give Leipzig a 1-0 lead inside 2 minutes. Julian Nagelsmann’s side was absolutely terrific from the first whistle adapting their famous high pressing and aggressiveness which United simply could not deal with. Things went from back to worse in the 13th minute when United were undone in a similar fashion to the first goal, a narrow United defence failed to defend two cross-field switches. This time goal scorer Angelino turned creator when he chipped in a lovely cross which was not dealt with by the out of position Luke Shaw and was lashed home by right wing back Amadou Haidara to give Leipzig a deserved 2-0 lead. The goals conceded were scored by each of Leipzig’s wing-backs and showed evident tactical flaws in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical approach to the game with three central defenders and two wing backs. Nagelsmann expertly deployed his side to take full advantage of Solskjaer’s lack of in game management and showed why he is regarded as one of Europe’s brightest coaches. United and Solskjaer were extremely relieved to somehow get to half time only being 2-0 down.
The penny finally dropped for Solskjaer and his coaching staff at half-time and he realised his negative approach and system was simply not working. He reverted back to a back four and substituted Alex Telles for Donny van de Beek. The team now consisted of a 4-2-3-1 formation (De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw, Matic, McTominay, van de Beek, Fernandes, Rashford, Greenwood). The extra man in midfield immediately gave United more balance in the game and resolved the problem that had afforded Angelino and Haidara so much space in the first-half. However, as United have continually struggled to do under Solskjaer this season they failed to create any clear cut goal scoring chances. The Red Devils struggled to break down the impressive Germans who were exceptional throughout adapting their high pressing system and again United only scored from set pieces. Bruno Fernandes as ever was the one bright spark on a miserable night in Germany testing Gulacsi with a long range effort before smashing the cross bar with a free kick minutes later. RB Leipzig took full advantage of Fernandes’ near miss by going straight up the field and scoring through Justin Kluivert to make it 3-0 to the Germans. The Leipzig goal was another gift from the continuous lackadaisical defending after the most expensive defender in the world Harry Maguire inexplicably left a deflected Angelino cross which allowed substitute Kluivert to nip in and score past the questionable David de Dea. The goal perfectly summarises the basic fundamental defensive issues Manchester United are having on a weekly basis under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and it shows no signs of being addressed by his inexperienced coaching staff.
The Red Devils finally decided to show up and start to play when Mason Greenwood went down in the penalty area after a challenge from Konate. The referee gave quite a soft penalty and Bruno Fernandes converted the penalty to make it 3-1. The unlikely comeback gained more momentum three minutes later when Pogba leapt to meet a Fernandes corner which was put into Leipzig’s net by their defender Konate to make it 3-2 and make it a nervy final ten minutes for the Germans. However, Julian Nagelsmann’s side held on for a famous victory over the Red Devils to seal progression to the knockout phase of the Champions League. Meanwhile at United Europa League football awaits in 2021 after being eliminated from the group stages of the tournament.
The elimination from the Champions League and manner of the performance in the defeat to R.B Leipzig raises more questions on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s immediate future. The United legend is approaching nearly two years in the job as manager of Manchester United and has divided opinion amongst fans, pundits and ex-players since his appointment. Whilst Ole has made some significant progress since picking up the pieces after Jose Mourinho’s destructive tenure ended in disaster almost two years ago questions still need to be answered about the Norwegian’s long term future as United manager. Solskjaer’s nearly two years in charge of the Red Devils has coincided with a “Jekyll & Hyde” Manchester United which can be summarised by impressive wins against top European teams such PSG, Manchester City, Chelsea, etc. and defeats at home in the Premier League to Burnley, Crystal Palace and Arsenal. United fans are quite fed up with not knowing what Manchester United is going to show with each passing game and this is extremely worrying especially after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being the manager for almost two years.
There are some significant positives to take from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s two years at the club. When he came into the club it was in disarray behind the scenes after Jose Mourinho destroyed the club from top to bottom before he inevitably got sacked in December 2018. The Norwegian transformed the club overnight upon his arrival bringing back the feel good factor and bringing back the much loved Mike Phelan as assistant manager to join his coaching staff. United went on a fantastic run winning eight successive games under Solskjaer and the highlight of his interim appointment was the amazing comeback victory away to PSG in the Champions League. The comeback victory in Paris was the sign to the board that they got their man and Ed Woodward could not wait until the end of the season and appointed Solskjaer as permanent manager on a three year contract in March 2019. Reports from inside the club have indicated the Solskjaer and his coaching staff have transformed the club similarly to how Sir Alex Ferguson had it before his retirement in 2013.
Although, the results have been erratic Manchester United have shown under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the ability to get a result against a big team. Solskjaer has shown some tactical nous with impressive tactical displays in the last few seasons most memorably against Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs, PSG which shows he could be capable of long term success if the right system is adapted. He has also shown the knack of getting a result when he is in danger of losing his job, there has been no secret Solskjaer has been on the managerial ropes a few times over the past year but he always comes up with a big display and result when he needs it. Another positive from Solskjaer’s 23 months in charge has been the significant improvement in recruitment under the Norwegian as part of his “cultural reboot” plan. He has made some excellent and astute signings such as Harry Maguire, Dan James, Aaron Wan-Bisssaka, van de Beek and perhaps the best January transfer of all time Bruno Fernandes. These signings have all been identified by Solskjaer, the transfer “experts” and Ed Woodward and have been integrated into the squad and became key members of the first team. This is a stark difference to Mourinho’s chaotic recruitment policy which saw him fall out with Ed Woodward and the club hierarchy which resulted in multiple multi-million failed signings and the loss of his job. Perhaps the most important positive change since Solskjaer has taken over he has changed the culture inside the club by getting rid of players who did not want to be at the club despite their astronomical wages. He sold players like Sanchez, Lukaku, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Darmian, etc. and doing so he has brought players into the club who want to play for the club which has resulted in a better team morale. It is the first time in a long time Manchester United fans actually like most of the players because they are likeable and are at the club for the right reasons. This has to be credited as a massive success for Solskjaer who has done exceptional in identifying the correct players with good character to come into the club to compliment the squad rather than buying a player for x amount of money irrespective of their motivations for coming to the football club.
Solskjaer has to be applauded for the integration and man management of several academy graduates who he has helped nurture into experienced first team squad players. The Norwegian has handed 11 academy graduates their debut during his term as manager with Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams becoming key first players last season. The development and man management of teenage star Greenwood in particular has been excellent from Solskjaer who has worked closely with the young Bradford man as they both share the same position. Mason Greenwood enjoyed his breakthrough once “Project Restart” resumed English football in June and the teenager exploded scoring 17 goals in his debut campaign for the Red Devils. Greenwood became only the fourth teenager in United’s history to score 17 goals in a single season equalling the record achieved by the legendary George Best, Wayne Rooney and Brian Kidd. Solskjaer has managed Greenwood excellently and made sure to pass on all his knowledge and guidance to ensure the extremely talented Greenwood becomes the world class player United believe he can become.
Unfortunately there are more questions than answers to summarise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inconsistent two year stint as manager of Manchester United. The Red Devils under Solskjaer differentiate between being world class or the local Sunday league team standard and these unpredictable performances are on a weekly basis after two years in charge. This is simply down to Solskjaer and his coaching staff’s lack of footballing philosophy and style of football. United do not have a style of football under Solskjaer which is quite obvious on their over reliance on individual brilliance from key players such as Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes to win games on their own. Manchester United have also struggled to create any clear cut chances against most teams who sit in a low block with two banks of four when trying to score against them which means United are relying on set pieces such as penalties, free kicks and corners to create goal scoring opportunities and score goals. Another negative of Solskjaer’s United is his lack of in game management when his tactics and game plan is simply not working he is too slow to react before the game is out of reach. There are too many games to name but the most common game that comes to mind is the performance at home to PSG when Solskjaer did not substitute Fred who was on a yellow card at half time instead leaving him on for him to be sent off in the second half. This naïve approach does not belong at the top of European football and PSG took full advantage of Solskjaer’s ineptitude and ran away with the game 3-1 which resulted in United failing to qualify for the knockout phases of the Champions League.
Perhaps the most worrying and concerning thing for Solskjaer and Manchester United fans after two years nobody could name the strongest starting XI and formation. This is quite damning for Solskjaer who continually adapts different formations in key games with different personnel in key positions from game to game. This is reflected in matches when key players do not look confident and convinced of their individual role within the system which is usually after the opposing team has taken advantage of the lackadaisical start by taking the lead. This can be backed up by Solskjaer adapting a negative (3-5-2) system against R.B Leipzig on Tuesday night and playing Luke Shaw as the third central defender even though he has not played in 4 weeks. He also played Nemanja Matic who has only started four games all season as a central midfielder alongside Scott McTominay who usually partners the energetic Fred. These two selections and formation choice dramatically back fired for Solskjaer and his incompetent coaching staff when United got blitzed inside the first 13 minutes and were down 2-0 to R.B Leipzig. Luke Shaw was at fault for the second goal as he was caught out of position which allowed Haidara to score unmarked at the back post. Simple tactical errors like this is not commonly seen by top European coaches and coaching staff and judging by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial credentials he is not at this level. If Julian Nagelsmann was the manager of Manchester United he would have immediately changed the system and way of playing after falling behind after 90 seconds however Solskjaer sat bemused on the bench whilst Michael Carrick was on the touch line pointing up the field. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to act immediately when his United team concedes but he often just counts on his players producing a moment of magic to bring them back into the game.
There is no question that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still only at the club because of his club legend status at Manchester United. His winning goal in the Champions League against Bayern Munich in ’99 has made him a cult hero at Old Trafford forever but some fans seem to forget he should be judged as a manager and not on his glorious playing career. Ed Woodward is reluctant to sack another manager to further add fuel to the fire of his diabolical running of the club over the past seven years and knows if he sacks Solskjaer the fans will stand by the club legend. However, if Manchester United is going to progress it is becoming obvious on a weekly basis that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to be sacked if the club are going to progress any further. There is no doubt the “Baby faced assassin” has taken the club forward during his two years in charge and has made significant progress within the club such as improving the culture, integrating academy players, transfer recruitment, etc. Although, this progress is simply not enough and with arch –nemesis Liverpool winning titles and European trophies under their world class coach Jurgen Klopp, it is time Manchester United hire a world-class coach to replace the ex-Cardiff manager.