(Editors note: I started writing this piece on Thursday April 11 following the 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the first leg. For various reasons I didn’t finish it and didn’t come back to it until today. Updates have been made but some might have been missed).
Manchester United have lost six of eight (all competitions) since their great win against PSG over a month ago so no better time than now to do a quick state of the union.
It’s bad! Or is it?
Losing six of eight is far from good but let’s examine those four games. Two of the losses came to Wolves, a team that has taken a remarkable 13 of a possible 30 points against top six sides this year. Wolves are very sound defensively and frustrate the heck out of the bigger teams. They’re patient and efficiently take the chances they get. That’s exactly what they did to United, twice.
Two other losses, away to Arsenal and home to Barcelona, were two of the best games United have played under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
When Solskjaer took over, United had a great schedule and a fit team. They went on a rampant run where they were out-performing their numbers. That culminated with the ridiculous PSG match. Following that match, everyone in the stats community said regression to the mean was coming. United completely outplayed Arsenal and lost. They were the better team against Barcelona and lost. This is the regression to the mean! It happens.
(Update: When I started this United had lost four of five, now it’s even worse. The Everton game is more an aberration than a sign of what’s to come, but things are bad!)
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Since being appointed the full-time manager United have lost two of three, including two of their worst performances under Ole. That doesn’t change anything. Ole 100% should have gotten the job and earned the job. Bad runs happen and these are completely explainable (we’ll get to that later).
Should United have given him the job when they did? That’s up for debate. You can argue that Solskjaer would have that much more to prove if he didn’t have that job security yet. Ultimately I’m in favor of giving it to him now as it sends a clear message about the long term stability and the club can start preparing for next year.
As for Solskjaer on the pitch? Early on he showed to be very tactically flexible, putting in great plans against Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, and PSG.
But lately Solskjaer has fallen into a trap of playing both Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku up top. This comes as a combination of several things. Rashford being far better as a center forward, United not really having a true winger, and the team finding success with a false nine (usually Jesse Lingard). The downside is to that is, thanks to injuries, in order to play that way United often have to play with a pseudo back-three, which has been a disaster. Ole needs to either change that up, or find players that fit the system.
There’s another reason that Ole has kept changing things up. He doesn’t have Ander Herrera. I’m going to write another post (here it is!) going in depth as to how big a problem this is actually causing (it’s massive!) but the simple fact is, without Herrera Solskjaer has had to try to find ways to get Paul Pogba going. That’s led to plenty of changes because, things aren’t working!
The home form
It hasn’t been great and it’s becoming not just a problem but a genuine concern. In the Premier League United have won just nine of 15 home games. They lost on penalties to Derby County in the League Cup. The Champions League has been a horror show. United’s have scored just one goal in Europe this year, and it came from Mauroane Fellaini. Those European nights!
To be completely honest the home form is worse than it should be but not completely unexpected. United’s previous two managers (Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal) had no idea how to play at Old Trafford. Their teams didn’t use width or speed, the two things needed to take advantage of Old Trafford’s dimensions.
When Ole Gunnar came aboard United were the laziest team in the league, making the fewest sprints per 90. Solskjaer immediately set out to change that, playing with speed and using the width of Old Trafford to run teams off the field.
But it’s hard to get a team in better shape overnight. The increased running soon caught up to United in the form of injuries and fatigue. This has caused Solskjaer to have to change his team and tactics nearly every game, which has contributed to the inconsistency.
I was going to include a breakdown of the players here but I think I’ll save that for another post.