Just because an idea doesn’t work out, doesn’t mean that it was a bad one.
The second leg against Paris Saint-Germain saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continue a trend of tactical flexibility as Manchester United manager with an intriguing starting formation.
Pre-game, it looked like it would be a normal back five, but on the pitch it was really a 4-4-2. Ashley Young was put out as a right-sided midfielder who would drop back into a right-back position when both Angel Di Maria and Juan Bernat were high and wide.
Solskjaer and his backroom staff must have noticed in their pre-game analysis that this dual-wide threat only happened on PSG’s left flank. Sure enough, on PSG’s right, Julian Draxler rarely paired up with Dani Alves on the wing, and Alves himself rarely tried to take Luke Shaw on down the line.
Maybe if Young had started at right-back with Diogo Dalot ahead of him, as happened from the 36th minute when Eric Bailly was substituted, the match would have been a lot smoother.
Young — quietly one of the most intelligent defenders in United’s squad — seemed to understand the position much better than Bailly, and helped guide Dalot through the game as well.
Although it might just have been simpler to go with a regular back five, there was method to the madness.
PSG were playing with one man up front, and using three centre-backs to mark him would have been overkill given that United needed to get goals.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve seen tactical inventiveness from Solskjaer, of course. A diamond in midfield with the two strikers splitting wide quickly became a hallmark of the team in 2019’s early months.
The lopsided 4-4-2 against PSG was changed mid-game to a 5-4-1 and then a 5-3-2 as substitutions rolled on and the situation in-game shifted. Add those to the 4-3-3 which the interim manager inherited from Jose Mourinho, and that’s at least five different systems that Solskjaer has played in just a few short months.
Comparisons to Sir Alex Ferguson have, by this point, probably been overdone. However, in an age of tactical philosophies, Solskjaer’s tactical flexibility is more noticeable than it would have been at any point in footballing history, and it’s a trait he shares with his former manager.
Apart from winning, there’s not a lot that unites the various teams across the decades that Ferguson managed. Systems changed depending on who was available.
Tactical philosophies and the rigorous coaching needed to instill them have their advantages, of course. When they work, they can be unstoppable. But too often it seems like when they don’t work, things stall and team struggle to adapt. Chelsea and Maurizio Sarri offer a timely reminder of this.
Sure, United have experienced a good degree of luck to get through this tie. As a couple of viral tweets have pointed out, Solskjaer’s side has outperformed their underlying statistics to an extraordinary extent and every shot against PSG led, in some way, to one of the three goals.
However, the man-management and tactical flexibility that the Norwegian has shown in his time in the Old Trafford dug-out will serve him well if he gets given the job permanently.
A final word on the penalty itself, as a lot has been said about it.
As much as the argument that ‘defenders can’t defend with their arms behind their back’ is fair, it doesn’t apply in this case. Presnel Kimpembe was jumping and turning at least 180 degrees in mid-air.
The natural thing to do while jumping and spinning is for the arms to go in the direction of the spin: in this case, that would mean Kimpembe’s right arm moving towards his body and his forearm moving across his front. It didn’t.
Without wanting to claim the ability to read the defender’s mind, the fact that he barely complained when the penalty was given feels like it says something. Defenders have been known to leave an arm half-extended — not aiming to block the shot as such, but knowing that they have plausible deniability of intent if the ball does happen to hit them.
Both the match referee and Peter Walton in the BT studio thought that Kimpembe had left his arm out deliberately, and that’s why the penalty was given.
Solskjaer’s United might not get one of those every match but, as the saying goes, you make your own luck.
*all odds are subject to change
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by Tom Bodell