Speaking in a press conference at the beginning of the month, Ole Gunnar Solskjær highlighted the problem that Manchester United had been facing in defending counter-attacks.
“That [being counter-attacked] is the challenge that we are facing more and more. We have got to be better at it. We want to be in the position that teams pay us such respect. There are so many things that you’ve got to do right.”
Three weeks later, and he got nothing but respect from a Liverpool team that took their foot off the gas after 60 minutes. Unfortunately, that was after Jürgen Klopp‘s side scored five goals beforehand.
Last season, the problem that United had was when they had possession against teams that utilised a deeper block, but this season has shown problems both on and off the ball for The Red Devils, who are more open than ever at the back and in the middle.
When Adama Traore cut through United’s defence like a knife through butter time after time at the end of August; you could somewhat forgive early-season fatigue. When Dean Smith‘s Aston Villa outclassed the Reds and was constantly troubling United’s backline; you felt that Solskjær at least deserved the chance to change the way his side were approaching games.
Cristiano Ronaldo‘s reintroduction at Old Trafford meant that a different approach out of possession was needed for the side which has been awful in that particular aspect this season. However, the manager didn’t make any changes… and then faced Leicester City and Liverpool. Nine goals later suggest that he should’ve done something.Embed from Getty Images
A flattering victory against Atalanta in between might have salvaged United’s Champions League campaign, however, the back to back losses in the league have not only hurt United’s “title challenge”, but also shown Solskjær’s inability to adapt; which he previously has been praised for.
Would any Manchester United fan have complained about their manager operating with a back three, or with a defensive approach to the game, when they have been watching the side of late? I doubt it. Sticking with the same 4-2-4 shape was a recipe for disaster, and the Merseyside opposition were the perfect chef.
Unlike in fixtures against Villarreal, Wolves and West Ham, where United were not punished for their naivety in their defensive transition and organisation, Liverpool were the definition of clinical in the first half at Old Trafford on Sunday. This saw them lead The Reds 4-0 at the break – the first time any side had done so in Premier League history.
They were helped by Solskjær’s gullible approach which saw him leave his wingers, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, high up the pitch in the attempt to hurt Liverpool in transition. The Norwegian manager must’ve forgotten how his side have been playing defensively in recent months, as well as missing the fact that Mohamed Salah is one of the most in-form players in world football currently.Embed from Getty Images
The attempted press by the youthful English wingers was almost asking to be played through. Cover-shadows? Pressing as a unit? It was hard to see what the point was whenever we aimed to press against the visiting side.
Yes. United have caused the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City problems with a counter-attacking style in previous years, but their defensive structure has never been so frail and troublesome. Ensuring that they tried to limit the best winger and full-back combinations in world football would’ve been a good idea, but it seemed like he was doing anything but limiting Liverpool’s impressive flanks.
While the problems on either side were huge, United’s midfield being cut through was laughable, it happened last week with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba anchoring the midfield, and then again this week with Scott McTominay and Fred operating there. While a true defensive midfielder still isn’t at the club, it seems less about the personnel and more about the fact that whichever duo is in there, it incredibly isolated and has to cover way too much ground with the four attackers ahead of them focusing on what they’ll do when their teammates regain possession and they have the ball in the final third.
It took Liverpool just four simple passes, starting from Virgil Van Dijk and ending with Salah, to cut through United’s entire side for the opening goal. Luke Shaw claimed that he needed to “look myself in the mirror“, following his performance, but you can feel pity for a player that is regularly put into isolated situations like the one below.
And while the left-back and his centre-back and captain Harry Maguire were amateurish (to say the least) when tasked to deal with this deep cross from Andy Robertson, they were not helped when Trent Alexander-Arnold (the most dangerous offensive full-back in world football) was completely free on the right side of their box, with Bruno Fernandes making an effort to return to his own third, while Marcus Rashford was not even on screen.
Yet, with how the forwards continued to persist with high positions, as they have done in previous weeks, you can only think that these are instructions given to them. If they are not, and these players are ignoring instructions to get back and help their full-back and be better positioned in defensive shape, then they should be hooked before the scoreline wasn’t salvageable (where’s Dan James when you need him, eh?).
The players certainly should not get away with poor performances scot-free. However, they were set up to have a torrid time on Sunday afternoon. They were not playing a side that would not take advantage of their weak performance, and a late winner wasn’t even on the cards as the team approached the end of the first half.
Performances had shown that, unless tactics were changed, results like the ones against Liverpool and Leicester were on the cards. United’s out of possession game looks at its very worst, and while you might be able to get away with late winners from Ronaldo against lesser teams, the top teams will punish.
Solskjær believes he is still the man to take United forward. With Tottenham, Atalanta and Manchester City ahead of him (as well as Villarreal and Chelsea later in November, and Arsenal at the start of December), he’ll either need a tactical overhaul of the current set-up or a miracle to have a chance to still be within any realistic distance of the league leaders come December. It’s looking bleak for Ole Gunnar Solskjær.