Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United continue to be an enigma.
They haven’t scored a Premier League goal from open play at Old Trafford for two months and yet scored four from open play in one match at the same venue against RB Leipzig in the Champions League.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was just left with more problems to solve despite the win over West Brom
It required a re-taken penalty from Bruno Fernandes to split the teams at Old Trafford
Solskjaer’s United relish tearing apart teams on the counter-attack but, for all their fabulous attacking options, seem stumped when confronted with a five-man defence sitting deep.
It should be said that Saturday night’s 1-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion, their first league win at Old Trafford since July 4, could have been far more emphatic.
Baggies goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, who spent nine years as a United player, made a string of outstanding saves and was beaten only by a re-taken Bruno Fernandes penalty.
But that’s precisely the problem. United should have been out of sight, but didn’t take the many chances that came their way.
At other times, as Solskjaer acknowledged afterwards, they over-complicated their passing in promising situations.
United were denied repeatedly by their former academy goalkeeper Sam Johnstone
Anthony Martial cut a frustrated figure as his struggle for goals this season continued
Man United fixtures
Tuesday Istanbul Basaksehir (H) CL
Sunday Southampton (A) PL
December 2 PSG (H) CL
December 5 West Ham (A) PL
December 8 RB Leipzig (A) CL
December 12 Man City (H) PL
It explains why they seem to be reliant on penalties to get their goals at Old Trafford – in the Premier League at least.
Victory over West Brom buys Solskjaer a little more time but his job won’t be fully safe until United’s attacking verve is restored and they put teams out of sight on a consistent basis.
Marcus Rashford has seven goals so far this season – three coming against Leipzig – but Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood are struggling for form, with just two goals apiece and none in the league.
The attacking swagger that marked United’s performances post-restart in June has vanished.
And Solskjaer again went for the belt and braces of two holding midfielders – Nemanja Matic and Fred – against a West Brom side 18th in the table. Why?
Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s match with an ankle injury but looks increasingly a spare part, while Donny van de Beek again had to be satisfied with an appearance off the bench.
In order to save his job, it may be that Solskjaer needs to make changes to his system or certainly in how existing personnel are deployed. Here are a few potential tweaks.
Mason Greenwood has found goal more difficult to come by this season than the last campaign
MARTIAL OUT WIDE, CAVANI IN
Martial has led United’s line for a long time now, especially in the 4-2-3-1 set-up that Solskjaer favours.
But on Saturday, he was the picture of frustration as the centre forward as Branislav Ivanovic, Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi kept him completely shackled.
However, when Edinson Cavani came on for Juan Mata in the 62nd minute, Martial was moved out to the left side and was suddenly able to cause problems with his direct runs and skilful feet.
Edinson Cavani was sharp and determined to make an impact when he came on for United
So why not start Martial on one of the wings permanently and have Cavani, who has looked sharp in his handful of appearances since arriving at United, play up front?
Martial would surely be more effective if able to run and take on defenders with the option to cut inside and shoot, while Cavani finds pockets of space inside the box.
Cavani was often made to play second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain and was shunted out wide when his best position is as a centre forward.
Anthony Martial should be moved out wide where he can run at defenders and cut inside
Restored to that role, there’s every chance he would flourish and if the 33-year-old runs out of ideas, Solskjaer could replace him with Greenwood.
The difficulty is what then happens to Rashford, the in-form forward who usually plays on the left. But he has played on the right side at times in his career, or Martial could play out on the right.
It would offer United two speedy forwards out wide plus a real goal poacher in the middle.
One potential alternative for United would be to move Martial to a wide position and have Cavani leading the attack
THREE UP FRONT WITH FERNANDES PULLING THE STRINGS
Solskjaer seldom strays from his 4-2-3-1 formation, believing it offers United the right balance.
But surely in matches against lesser opposition, he could set up in a 4-2-1-3 and rely on his lethal front line to score enough times to settle the contest.
When United host Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League on Tuesday night, for example, surely they could play with that Rashford-Cavani-Martial forward three with a three-man midfield behind.
Solskjaer played both Fred (left) and Nemanja Matic (right) as holding midfielders on Saturday
Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s game through injury but Solskjaer needs to work out his role
Fernandes would be the most advanced midfielder, pulling the strings and threading passes. Pogba or Van de Beek as the No 8 linking defence and attack, with an industrious holding midfielder like Matic, Fred or Scott McTominay shielding the back four when required.
Pogba has never been a fan of defensive responsibility but in certain games, he could work in tandem with Fernandes to unpick a massed defence. Rashford and Martial would offer width and direct running to unsettle the defenders.
The midfield remains a challenge for Solskjaer. How best to accommodate Pogba, Van de Beek and Fernandes into essentially the same role while keeping everyone satisfied.
Donny van de Beek once again started on the bench on Saturday before replacing Rashford
He cannot play all three because his side would be too unbalanced towards attack, which means leaving at least one on the bench and allowing frustration to build up.
The personnel need depends completely on the opposition, but the conservatism of playing two defensive midfielders against the likes of West Brom is surely part of the reason United are lacking fluency.
If United switched to a 4-3-3 formation, a front three of Rashford, Cavani and Martial has the potential to cause major problems, with Fernandes and Van de Beek supplying
REPEAT THE LEIPZIG FORMULA
That five-goal thrashing of RB Leipzig remains United’s best attacking display of the season by a considerable distance. But it all begs the question – why in that game but not all the others?
Obviously it helped that Leipzig came to Old Trafford wanting to give it a go, allowing United to repeatedly pick them off on the counter.
But Solskjaer did set his team up slightly differently that night – with a midfield diamond – and it certainly worked. On the flip side, he did the same thing against Arsenal a few days later and it failed miserably.
Marcus Rashford was sensational in scoring a hat-trick against RB Leipzig last month
The midfield diamond that proved so effective against Leipzig was a failure against Arsenal
We will likely see the diamond again, however, before too long.
It relies on two forwards – Martial and Greenwood against Leipzig, with Rashford scoring a hat-trick off the bench, or Rashford and Greenwood against Arsenal.
Any combination could be used really, including playing Cavani, with Fernandes behind them at the ‘tip’ of the diamond. The players behind them would depend on the opposition.
Maybe for weaker opponents, both Pogba and Van de Beek could play with Matic at the base. For stronger teams, replace one of Pogba or Van de Beek with Fred or McTominay for that added cover.
If this set-up worked so spectacularly against a team of Leipzig’s quality, you would imagine more often than not it will have a similar impact in the future.
In certain games, the midfield diamond could make use of Fernandes, Pogba and Van de Beek with two speedy strikers up top
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