It is the counterintuitive detail that strikes at the heart of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United rebuild; firing optimism one week, stasis and frustration the next. How can Solskjær’s team play with a freedom of expression against the Premier League’s best, en route to getting encouraging results, but so frequently run into walls against less-fancied opponents?
The manager had a stab at answering the question on Wednesday night, after the stirring 2-1 Old Trafford victory over Tottenham, and it was one of those moments when he caught himself a couple of times before he said too much.
“There are many different reasons for how a game goes but we’ve had players enjoying themselves [against Spurs] – that’s definitely, errr …” Solskjær said. “It’s players taking people on. Sometimes it feels like maybe, it’s been … We haven’t been good enough, we have to say, in breaking teams down when we’ve had 70, 75 % possession. This was about 50-50; I don’t know [exactly] but we had most of the ball in the first half. Some of the buildup play and penetration was excellent.”
Solskjær seemed to stop himself from making an obvious criticism of his young players, which might have been that they have not always been able to enjoy and express themselves – possibly because of the expectations on them.
The strange thing has been that in what, on the face of it, have been their hardest and most high-pressure games of a troubled season – against Chelsea, Leicester, Liverpool and Spurs, each at home – they have played with a conviction, a certain fearlessness. And they have done well, winning against all bar Liverpool when a 1-1 draw still added up to a feel-good result.
Compare and contrast with the home performances against Crystal Palace (2-1 defeat) and Aston Villa (2-2 draw) or the away losses at West Ham, Newcastle and Bournemouth or the away draws at Wolves, Southampton and Sheffield United.
The Spurs manager, José Mourinho, previously of United, had a theory and it carried a withering undertone – essentially that Solskjær’s team are more relaxed and better when they can cast themselves as the underdog, even at Old Trafford; when they do not feel they need to make the game.
“Look at their results against the best teams and they had good results,” Mourinho said. “At home, when they play like they did against Chelsea, Liverpool, Leicester – they always had this type of attitude. For the way they play it’s easier for them. They’re not afraid to be with a defensive approach. They are not afraid to be at home, take their time and be in control of the emotions of the game. Then there are lots of young players with good energy, with a good mentality.
“When they are winning matches, they are comfortable in this situation – a low block with a giant [player] dominating, fast counterattacking. The way they play, it’s easier for them to play against the teams, better teams, who want more of the ball and want to have the initiative of the game. I think they did well.”
Against Spurs, the possession statistics showed that United had a 46% share – the same as against Chelsea. In the Leicester game it was 42%; against Liverpool 32%. In their other home win of the season – against Brighton – they had 43%. Consider the numbers against Palace and Villa: 71% and 62%, respectively. In United’s other home game of the league season, the skittish 1-1 draw with Arsenal, they had 55%.
The picture is clear. When United have the lion’s share of the ball, when they are asked to proactively take teams apart, they have struggled. Far better to allow possession-hogging opponents to come on to them; to start at pace and punch on the counter. United’s fortunes away from Old Trafford have reinforced the conclusions. In each of their seven league fixtures, they have had more than 50% of the ball, sometimes significantly so – the 68% at Newcastle, for example. They have won once: at Norwich with 54%.
The Spurs win was an occasion to vindicate the faith in Solskjær; to see that his team have the capacity to play productive and exciting football against Champions League-level opposition. There were positives in many individual displays, not least those of Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and even the much-maligned Fred. What it did was buy breathing space for Solskjær’s project, which everybody knows is a prerequisite. Looking good against the bigger teams ought to be the most difficult part. It is a plus that Solskjær is ticking this box.
On the other hand, there is a fundamental problem if United cannot assert themselves against sides that, in the not so dim and distant past, they would have rolled over. It is unsustainable, as is the notion of this behemoth of a club as the plucky underdog.
United’s next game is the Manchester derby at City on Saturday evening – their first high-profile away-day assignment of the season. It is likely to be the first time on their travels that they see less of the ball than their opponents but they will not care. It might suit them. How Solskjær fares at home to Everton on Sunday week may prove more instructive.