You’re all idiots.
So, they’ve done it. After a 2-0 win over Leicester City, Manchester United have finished the season in 3rd place, more than enough to secure Champions League football in 2020/21. Rewind some 6 (it’s been a really long year) months, and that same team had slumped to a 2-0 home loss to Burnley. That defeat saw Manchester United in 5th place, 6 points behind Chelsea, and 14 behind 3rd place Leicester City. The general mood around the teams prospects couldn’t have been lower.
Despite that, Manchester United went into the final games of the season with the prospect of Champions League football well and truly in their grasp. And they took it. The turnaround in fortunes, which coincided with an incredible collapse from Leicester City, led to a 19 game unbeaten run in all competitions, and the side taking 32 points from a possible 42. Such an obviously positive uptick in form and performance would, in most cases be lauded.
Instead, we saw a revival of the #OleOut movement. The 3-1 loss in the FA Cup semi final saw (on my Twitter timeline, at least) an explosion of hate directed towards the Norwegian manager. In fact, every result, other than a victory, is seemingly met with a swathe of negativity and vitriol, from camps both in and out of the fanbase.
With that in mind, it’s time to put things into perspective. I’m ending my 2 year hiatus from writing about proper football to explain that, in reality, Solskjaer is doing alright, actually. You’re all just being a bit over the top.
Let down in the market
The story of the 2019/20 season truly began at the end of 2018/19. After limping to a 6th place finish, attention was quickly drawn to the summer transfer market. Before the window was even open, reports circulated the Solskjaer wanted the clubs business concluded before the pre-season tour began in July. With a number of high profile players having left (or angling to leave) the club, it was absolutely imperative that Solskjaer was given a successful window to allow for the best possible start to the season.
Only Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (both subjects of drawn out negotiations between Manchester United and their previous clubs) joined prior to the tour. Manchester United had made no secret of their admiration of Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, yet refused to match their £80 million valuation. Over the previous season, the complete lack of options in midfield had reared its head in their poor finish. Ander Herrera, the one consistent performer across the post-Ferguson era, was allowed to leave the club on a free transfer. Rumours of interest in Sporting CP’s Bruno Fernandes began to swell, though United didn’t agree with his £55 million price tag.
Neither Maguire, nor Fernandes, signed for the club before the pre-season tour commenced, despite Solskjaer’s wishes. Solskjaer took what tools he had at his disposal, and worked on their general fitness, an area he’d previously cited as a major reason behind their end of season slump. 6 days before the season proper would begin, Manchester United announced the acquisition of Harry Maguire from Leicester City, for a reported £80 million. The obvious need in the midfield was not addressed.
Nor, it should be added, were the additional holes that appeared in the days following Maguire’s signing. Romelu Lukaku, a £75 million centre forward, joined Inter Milan with no obvious replacement. Alexis Sanchez, struggles aside, also made the move to Inter Milan, albeit on a loan. Going into gameweek one, Manchester United had lost 3 starters, had replaced one of them with a rookie from the Championship, and left the other two unchecked.
At the end of Solskjaer’s first transfer window, he had been failed. While he publicly claimed to be happy with the squad he has (what any reasonable manager would do), it was clear the squad wasn’t up to it. It wasn’t up to the task the season previous, how could it be with major players not replaced?
That under-equipped squad managed to stick around, despite their own best efforts. Victories over the better sides in the Premier League (Chelsea, City, Spurs, and Leicester were all dispatched in emphatic fashion), the lack of real options became apparent in losses to Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, and draws to Southampton and Aston Villa.
Still with an outside chance of Champions League football, Manchester United began looking for reinforcements in the January market. Those Bruno Fernandes rumours began once more, and, after back to back defeats to Liverpool and Burnley, the trigger was finally pulled. A deal worth up to £68 million was struck. Ander Herrera was finally replaced. Days later, on loan, came Odion Ighalo. Romelu Lukaku was finally replaced.
From that signature onwards, Manchester United put together an unbeaten run spanning 19 games across all competitions. It’s impossible to convey just how important Bruno Fernandes has been to this side. Defences that would often set up to see out a game were suddenly unlocked with ease. The hunt for the top 4 was back on, everything was in United’s hands, and it all came down to the acquisition of a single midfielder. Makes you wonder why he wasn’t a Manchester United player in August, really.
A gross spend of around ~£200 million over 2 windows may not seem like it, but Solskjaer was let down significantly by the club heading into the 2019/20 season. He had made it clear when he had wanted the business wrapped by, and the club did not deliver. Rather than giving Solskjaer his man and moving onto the next one, they opted to haggle over the price of every single signing, and still ended up paying what the seller wanted. Simple signings turned into drawn out sagas spanning weeks and months. When the first ball was about to be kicked, the squad at his disposal was somehow weaker than the one that’d ended the season with a home loss to Cardiff.
In spite of his superiors, in spite of long term injuries to Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Paul Pogba, with no real replacements for them in the squad, Solskjaer’s side managed to stay in the conversation. That is, of course, in part to the collective shambles that appears to be the Premier League this season. However, Manchester United themselves played their role in staying amongst the challenging pack through the season. A lot of that is down to Solskjaer’s ability to improve his players
They’re getting better
That perceived lack of overall ability within the squad could, and probably should, have seen a slump back into the 6th place that United wore like a glove. Instead of spending every Friday afternoon press conference complaining about the players he didn’t have, however, Solskjaer got to work with the players he did. That approach has seen a swathe of players take significant positive steps in their development.
The 2015/16 season wasn’t one to remember (outside of a sweet, sweet FA Cup title), but the groundwork was slowly being laid for future successes. The emergence of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial along the front line should have been cause for excitement. However, their development was stifled by limited opportunities over the following 3 seasons. Fears of regression and unfulfilled ability had, reasonably, begun to set in.
Both Rashford and Martial have posted the best scoring returns of their careers thus far. For the first time since 2010/11, Manchester United have two players surpass 20 goals in one season. The great promise the pair showed in their debut seasons has resurfaced. Take into account that both Rashford and Martial suffered long term injuries at varying points in the season, that should be an impressive feat in itself. Add the efforts of the 18 year old Mason Greenwood, who has equaled the best goalscoring return for a teenager since Wayne Rooney, and you can’t help but admire the improvements across the attacking group.
Away from the front line, we have Fred. Coming off a truly awful first season at Old Trafford, you could have been forgiven for calling an end to his United career before it’d truly begun (not naming any names (me)). With Pogba missing the vast majority of the season, and the lack of viable options behind him, opened a window for Fred to stake a claim long term. General improvements to his passing success, tackles, interceptions, and key passes per game smack of a man far more comfortable under the current regime. Similarly, Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof have both enjoyed a resurgence under Solskjaer. Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn’t known for his attacking output as much as his defensive qualities, yet he has chimed in with a series of key passes himself.
Where holes appeared, so did opportunity for younger players. Significant game time for the aforementioned Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams suggest a willingness to utilise the famous academy when pressed. Promotion from within was a philosophy long revered by the club, yet seemingly abandoned in recent history. Whether the likes of Tahith Chong, James Garner, Ethan Laird et al go onto become Manchester United regulars remains to be seen, but Solksjaer has put them on the very first step of that ladder.
The reality is, outside of a handful of names (David de Gea, I love you, but I’m looking at you here), you’re hard pressed to argue that many in this squad aren’t better players now than they were 18 months ago. Of course, all that would be for nought if Solskjaer wasn’t up to the task tactically. Well.
Organising the squad
Since the restart, Solskjaer’s preferred set up has been a 4-2-3-1, with Pogba allowed the freedom to roam forward. The approach has, of course, seen the side take 21 points from a possible 27. For contact, no team has taken more points since the restart than Manchester United, with only Manchester City equalling that total.
Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 has been paramount to the offensive explosion seen from Manchester United in recent weeks. Having two forwards (Rashford and Greenwood) playing the opposite side to their more comfortable foot (right footed Rashford on the left, left footed Greenwood on the right), allowed them to drift inside, opening space for the full back. As mentioned, Wan-Bissaka isn’t known for his attacking prowess, however he’s notched 4 assists from the position, indicating a growing comfort in his new role.
That formation didn’t come about straight away. It’s taken a full season of getting players healthy, and acquiring those who are capable of playing it to a high level. In the final game before the season was paused, Manchester United played out a 2-0 victory over Manchester City. With both Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford out (presumed for the season), Solskjaer set his side up with a back 3, to help mask the defensive deficiencies within the side. A quirk of that 3, however, saw Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams on the left hand side of the defence.
Both Shaw and Williams are pretty good in their own right. Allowing them the opportunity to rotate defensive and attacking responsibilities, however, paid dividends that day. The use of that formula was a continuation of how Gareth Southgate operated Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier in the 2018 World Cup to such great effect. It also took the “overlapping centre backs” theory popularised by Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, and evolved it to suit the players available to him.
In fact, that set up had allowed United to prosper in the away trip to Chelsea only a fortnight prior. The same line up, the same result. Solskjaer’s 3-4-1-2 had successfully worked in the away leg of the Carabao Cup semi final as well, indicating that, with the right players available, it was the perfect remedy for sides capable of controlling the ball for long periods in the attacking phase. That sentiment was compounded in the FA Cup semi final when, without the option of Shaw in that left hand side, United slumped to defeat.
It’s not a case of only having two formations, either. Over the course of the season, Solskjaer has rotated between the 4-3-2-1 and 3-4-1-2 formations we’ve discussed, but also a 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 when required. His flexibility in how the side lines up, doing away with what doesn’t work and sticking with what does, has contributed hugely to how the side got into the position to secure Champions League football to begin with.
On field under-performance
The biggest stick used to beat Solskjaer is the amount of points the side have collected since the seasons start. That’s completely reasonable: despite everything I’ve said, they’ve managed to equal last seasons points total. With a little help from our good friend, xG, however, it becomes clear that the side is underperforming against where it should be.
Based purely on the xG results over the course of the season, United are 5 points (4.99, but let’s not split hairs here) fewer than where they should be. That’s taking into account the chances they should have taken, and the opposition chances they shouldn’t have conceded. A combination of a lacklustre defensive display in certain scenarios, and slightly off target attacking play in others, has denied United 71 (70.99, but, again) points from 38 games. When played out across the league, that’s good for 4th place, 7(.17) points clear of 5th place.
How can that be remedied? Well, being more clinical is the key thing. As we’ve seen, having 2 of your 3 main attackers miss a large portion of the season thanks to differing injuries certainly doesn’t help things. However, it indicates that the pattern of play is largely solid. The players are getting into positions to create and score goals. Unfortunately, it’s not the manager being asked to put those chances away.
xG aside, Manchester United’s on field output is undeniably better than it was in 2018/19. With 66 goals scored in the league alone, Solskjaer’s men have posted a better return than both of van Gaal’s seasons, Mourinho’s debut season, and David Moyes’ only season. With, as we’ve discussed, fewer options in the attacking positions than all three of those managers. Defensively, further strides have been taken. Only Mourinho and van Gaal’s second seasons saw less goals conceded.
In current terms, only Liverpool and Manchester City have conceded less than Manchester United. United finished 3rd in the league for goals conceded, and 5th for goals scored. Compare that to 2018/19, where United sat 11th and 5th for goals conceded and scored respectively, and the progress tells its own story. Assuming the league levels out (as it tends to do), Manchester United are on the brink of solidifying themselves as a perennial top 4 side. That is a significant step for a side that has bounced between Europe’s top and secondary competitions.
Where do we go from here?
No matter what way you shake it, this has been a season of progress. Moreover, we’ve learned an awful lot about where Manchester United could go in the near future. In a previous post, I made the argument that Jose Mourinho had successfully conned the footballing landscape into believing that progress was being made at Manchester United. I stated that, the feeling of finishing 6th place will “be a feeling you’ll have to get used to”, and was vindicated a season later. Here, I want to argue that, with the steps Solskjaer has made, and with the right additions to the squad, Manchester United are on their way to becoming a perennial top 4 finisher. For a side that has bounced between the premier and secondary competitions in Europe, and from a manager that is apparently out of his depth, that’s a pretty good start, as far as I’m concerned.
You all just need to calm down a bit.
Solskjaer isn’t above criticism, mind. There are plenty of times he’s, directly or indirectly, put Manchester United in an unfavourable situation. Similarly, there are plenty of areas he’s currently short in. In a follow up post, I will detail these deficiencies, and how Solskjaer can fix them.