There’s No Theme at Manchester United

What’s wrong with Manchester United? This is the most frequently asked question by pundits and fans alike for the last 7 to 8 years. Manchester United is not what it was when Sir Alex was in charge of the club. Many fans feel that things would’ve never gone sour had Sir Alex remained. Personally I feel a decline at the club began in the years leading up to Sir Alex’s exit. Although, Manchester United would still be in a better place today had Sir Alex remained in charge. They would have an identity at least.

Is the answer that simple though? Have we just had terrible manager after terrible manager? Well, the answer is yes and no, but this isn’t the question we should be asking. What we should be asking is, what is Manchester United? Seriously, who are they, what should we expect from them every matchday? Sure many will have their ideas or opinions of what Manchester United should look like every match day due to the club’s history. But, a historical identity isn’t going to win you titles. The team needs an identity, a theme of play. Something the club has lost in the years since Sir Alex, and ultimately has completely lost today.

What is Manchester United?

Does Manchester United prefer to counter attack or hold onto the ball? The answer to that question changes every game, but either way it isn’t a style. When you watch a Pep Guardiola team you know what to expect. You know you’re going to see fluid and slick passing through the middle. If that doesn’t work they’ll push the ball out wide and break into the middle from there. When you watch Liverpool you know you’re going to see a team that can hold onto the ball well and create attacking opportunity after attacking opportunity. I personally like to compare Liverpool under Klopp to a good folk style wrestler. They’re going to attempt an attack in one way, then another, then another; then if those ways don’t work, they’ll try another. These two teams have an identity, and love them or hate them, it’s why they’ve had consistent success over recent seasons.

Any good team needs an identity, and it should remain regardless of the starting 11. When a team like Bayern Munich gives its best players a rest, you can still expect the team to keep most of the ball and be relentless in attack. Manchester United needs to develop an identity again. Switching formation and tactics from game to game isn’t an identity. Sure, it’s important for a team to be able to adapt to a game and execute a game plan, but it needs a default mode.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Public enemy number one with regard to Manchester United’s lack of identity is its current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Personally I love the man, and want to seem him remain in a role at the club forever. But, OGS does not have a prefered style of football, he has no identity. When I watch Manchester United play I never know what to really expect. There is no hint as to how the team wants to play. How they want to use the ball. How they ultimately plan on putting the ball in the back of the net. Let’s take a look at an example.

Two Games, Two Styles

The 4-1-2-1-2 formation in the 5-0 victory over Leipzig

When Manchester United stomped Red Bull Leipzig 5-0 this season they came out in 4-1-2-1-2 formation with Pogba out wide and Van de Beek in the middle. While they scored a goal in the 21st minute, the team needed to swap out Pogba and Van de Beek, and bring on Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford. When they came on the formation changed, and the team came alive. Then, in contrast to this game, when these two teams met again Manchester United came out with a 3-1-4-2 formation. They did control more of the ball and have more shots, but much like the first match there wasn’t any style.

The 3-1-4-2 formation in the 3-2 defeat to Leipzig

When United beat Leipzig 5-0 they relied on their two stars to make some great plays, but there wasn’t any clear plan. Then, again in the second meeting United looked to its stars once again, but on that day it wasn’t enough. Leipzig knew exactly what United were going to do. Anytime Wan-Bissaka was on the ball out wide you could expect to see an unsure cross straight into the first defender or over driven. When Shaw got the ball you’d expect to see a run into the box from the left with a ball driven straight into the first defender. The only player with any imagination is Bruno, and you can tell he doesn’t even know how Ole wants the team to play. That’s why he’s constantly trying something new every time he touches the ball.

Ole’s Vision

Should the team play a ball through the middle, over the top, out wide, or look to break the opposition down with relentless attacking play? There is no answer to these questions right now and the only one to blame is OGS. Why does Ole constantly change up the team, and why can’t he instill a desired style? I know he has one, and I’d love to see it.

“I’d like a team to have control of the game but you have to be able to attack quickly when you have the ball.” -Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

As cited in the Manchester Evening News by Tyrone Marshall, 2020

I believe Ole wants the team to play a style very similar to that of Liverpool. He wants the team to be quick, but also have control of the ball. Ole’s vision for United is a team that owns possession of the ball and creates attack after attack in every opportunity that presents itself. He just needs to find a way to instill this vision into the team. Although, if a style of play hasn’t been implemented by now, will it ever be?

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