There could be many things wrong with Manchester United [the same which almost all teams in the world] but the manner of their 5-0 thrashing on Sunday by their fiercest rivals, Liverpool showed the extent of the foundational re-engineering needed to make them league challengers again.
United were a picture of 11 players called off the playground, and given the same jerseys and given one instruction – press, but Liverpool just easily passed their way through the half-hearted press and scored at will.
Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became United’s boss in 2018, his team has played Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, and Leicester City 42 times and have lost on 14 occasions but have been victorious 17 times. When they suffered losses; the losses more often have resulted from mistakes from the players or great attacks. Sunday’s loss was one that revealed a lack of tactical and strategic nous by the manager.
A former United teammate Gary Neville, reflecting after the pounding, said, “For three years, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has played on the counter-attack. I have no idea why they didn’t do that today.”
All the talk preceding Sunday’s collapse dwelled on the fact that United players looked disjointed in their pressing actions against Leicester City, which they lost 4-2; and the comeback 3-2 win over Atalanta in the UEFA Champions League.
In an interview with Sky Sports, published on Saturday, Solskjaer revealed his naivety when he tried to argue Cristiano Ronaldo’s case of not doing enough to help United defensively.
“We talk about players who run a lot,” Solskjaer started, “he does as much as them. If people want to criticise his work ethic, that’s completely wrong.” The United manager was totally wrong with this revelation. Running is not the same as instigating the press as a No.9.
As applied in football by the most successful sides, the press is an organised, synchronised, and a concerted drive to win the ball back, especially in their last third so that they are closer to the opponent’s goal.
They achieve this synergy on the training ground as the manager seeks to create the chemistry to inculcate and achieve the purpose of the press. All the players must know what and how they are supposed to move in concert with their teammates.
“Pressing is a process in which the defending team intends to pressure the opponent which possesses the ball. The idea behind this is to give the opponent less time to create plays and ultimately force the opposing team into turnovers,” reveals Spielverlagerung.
The fallout is that once the pressing attempt fails, the opposition has an immediate opportunity to set a counter attack. Liverpool’s first goal came after Aaron Wan-Bissaka tried to (half-heartedly) press Liverpool left-back, Andrew Robertson, who, with a simple pass down the line took out Wan-Bissaka and Bruno Fernandes, therefore, drawing out Victor Lindelof from the centre of defence.
This created an overload on Harry Maguire, who had Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in his line of vision. Maguire could not commit as he tried to set up an offside which failed. All these actions instigated the run by Naby Keita from midfield and the Guinean utilised the one-on-one opportunity against David de Gea to give Liverpool the 1-0 lead after five minutes.
From here, every strategy by the United team fell apart. When Salah scored Liverpool’s third goal, there were seven United players in the box and none of them made a valid tackle. United defenders chased shadows all day and if not, the Liverpool team took their foot off the pedal. United could have fallen to a heavier defeat, especially after Paul Pogba was sent off.
For clarity, this is not the first time United have been heavily defeated at Old Trafford. Recall Jose Mourinho led Tottenham to a 6-1 victory last October but the 5-0 loss on Sunday glaringly showed where the United team is and what they lack.
This was not the case of the players letting the manager down; it was more about the manager being naïve and not preparing his team with the needed education and strategy to negate the strengths of the opponent. More shocking was we (pundits and fans) baited Solskjaer into preparing his team to press when he did not adequately prepare his team for what they tried to do.
In concluding the interview with Sky Sports, Solskjaer added: “He [Ronaldo] does the work that we want him to do for the team.” Solskjaer should have concentrated on what got him this far at Old Trafford; set up to hold off the opponent whilst baiting the opponent to open up space for his fast wingers.
But on Sunday, he believed his own hype and the goading to becoming the equal of elite managers like Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Thomas Tuchel, and he failed miserably.