Using the words “defensive approach” ensured that Jose Mourinho’s thoughtful and informed assessment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United was interpreted as a ‘dig’, but really it was just envy. Mourinho could only dream of setting up a United side as a low-possession, low-block team and being lauded as a tactical genius. He talked of “defending, compacting, trying to create something in counter-attack” in a series of compliments from a beaten manager, perhaps wishing that he had the right kind of energetic and motivated squad to perform those roles at his new club. But what he described was a team that could go to the Etihad and beat the champions with 26% possession but could not beat Bournemouth, Sheffield United or Aston Villa when allowed custody of the ball. Which makes Sunday’s home clash with Everton a far greater challenge than last week’s trip across Manchester, as counter-intuitive as that may seem to some.
In their last six Premier League games, United have three times allowed the opposition to dominate the ball and three times triumphed; three times they have been forced to take the initiative and they are yet to win. Against Bournemouth in particular they were awful – listless, aimless and bereft of ideas. ‘Mini-revival over, this is unmistakably a mid-table Manchester United side,’ I wrote, having sat down armed with statistics about Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and expecting an attacking masterclass. They were worse than dire and were little better against either Sheffield United or Aston Villa.
They did of course beat mid-table Brighton in that spell, but Brighton do not play like a mid-table side; they sit sixth in the Premier League possession table (above both Tottenham and United) and played into United’s hands by dominating the ball at Old Trafford. As Graham Potter said ruefully: “If you make any mistake they can turn defence into attack so quickly.” Indeed they can, which makes them so dangerous against technically superior sides. They have energy, enthusiasm, discipline, pace and a willingness to cede the initiative. The problem comes when they line up to find themselves looking in a mirror.
Duncan Ferguson’s Everton beat Chelsea last weekend with 30% possession and they would happily take the same share of the ball this Sunday. They can match United for energy, enthusiasm, discipline and pace, having resorted to the kind of back-to-basics tactics – long balls, swift counter-attacks, compact defence and midfield – that are designed to gain short-term results and lift a club away from the relegation zone. They could not be a more different proposition to City. From complacent to compact, from entitled to energetic, from vulnerable to something beginning with ‘v’ that means the opposite. They will not walk into Old Trafford thinking they can dominate United, but they should walk into Old Trafford thinking they can beat them. Or let United beat themselves.
Did Duncan Ferguson make a difference? Everton made 37 tackles against Chelsea. That’s the most by any team in the Premier League this season and the most that Everton have made in a Premier League game all decade.
— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) December 7, 2019
For all the talk of Solskjaer somehow out-thinking two of the great coaches of the modern era in the space of a few days, those triumphs owed more to mentality than a masterclass. Fostering that mentality is in itself a skill not to be downplayed, but it will only take United so far. Until they learn how to break down stubborn defences with something other than lightning strikes, they will struggle to turn one or two eye-catching results into a sequence that will recapture a Champions League place.
Take the top four teams out of a bespoke Premier League table and fifth-place Manchester United drop to 12th, with only West Ham, Watford and Norwich claiming fewer points against the rest of the bottom 16. Lose Arsenal and Spurs and United have picked up a risible ten points from ten games. It’s a remarkable failure that neatly illustrates the task facing Solskjaer – to develop a plan that amounts to more than ‘defend deep, move the ball quickly and stream forward’. It requires speed of thought rather than just speed of feet.
Take the top four teams out of the Premier League and this is your table. Oh, Manchester United… pic.twitter.com/VVJAq7y98M
— Football365 (@F365) December 12, 2019
We have seen one set of skills from this Manchester United and their manager – and they are the skills that create headlines and bring hope – but Sunday has to bring another demonstration: that this United side can be more than just the pacey, plucky underdog. That they can be odds-on favourites and play like odds-on favourites. That they can have something other than a ‘defensive approach’ and prevail.