In the dressing room after their 1-1 draw with Liverpool, the Manchester United players were down, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt he had to rev them up. He effusively pointed to the progress of their performance and how it offered encouragement for the future.
This wasn’t entirely wilful optimism either, for which the manager has been previously criticised. It was a display where you can at least understand why many at United do genuinely believe that this situation – and this managerial reign – will work out once a few different elements come together. And once Solskjaer gets some of the players he want.
First of all, from the very start, the Norwegian got his tactics right. It was probably his most impressive piece of managerial impact since the Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain in March. Some coaches in the game subscribe to a theory that there is always a formation that perfectly fits and maximises any squad. The challenge is finding it, figuring out the measurements, which takes a lot of insight and intuition. Antonio Conte used to describe it as “tailoring a suit to fit them” and perhaps the most famous recent example is his innovation with Chelsea in 2016-17.
That involved three centre-halves, just like Solskjaer’s against Liverpool, although it would obviously be a massive stretch to extend the comparison too far beyond that. Conte won a league with that approach. Solskjaer is still trying to get his team to win games, something they failed to do against Liverpool, as they similarly failed to score more than one goal in a match for the 21st time out of 24 this season.
It means United have now had their worst start to a season since 1986-87, when Ron Atkinson was sacked.
This has really been for reasons beyond the formation, though, and the real relevance was that 3-5-2 best fit the players available in the circumstances. It also fitted playing Liverpool, given that United dealt better with Jurgen Klopp’s full-backs than pretty much any other side since they were brought into the team.
In that regard, Solskjaer got it spot on.
He also acknowledged that it can be much more than a bespoke approach for the European champions.
“It can develop into something, because we’ve got players to play three at the back, and allows more width in the team. Of course it’s a risk against their front three, but it’s a risk you have to take. We did it to create chances ourselves.”
Some might scoff at that given United really only created two big chances at home, but that – and the performance – have to be put into the context of this match. Liverpool went into the game with everything going right. United went into the game with everything going wrong. Despite that, Solskjaer’s side controlled the shape and pattern of the game for just about the majority of it, before tailing off.
Some of their attacking moves in this time, not least for the goal through the incisive Dan James, were also promising.
“We’re better when we attack quickly,” Solskjaer said. “No dilly-dallying. It doesn’t have to be a counter-attack. I spoke about it before the game, to take more risks, be braver… it’s the right type of football.”
It’s pretty much Solskjaer’s idealised football, albeit without an ideal team – which is what’s really relevant.
United’s first XI is currently stretched to the limit, with that especially clear in midfield, so it left almost nothing on their bench. It meant Solskjaer didn’t really have the ability to freshen things up, or change things, in the way Klopp did to rescue the point.
It’s similarly little wonder that – to go with the wider issues regarding injury absences and adjustment to pre-season – the team ran out of energy again. That has been something of a theme, especially as Adam Lallana’s goal meant they have now dropped eight points from winning positions this season.
This is why the players were particularly disappointed. They felt they should have held out. They physically couldn’t, as an element of connected mental fatigue saw the defence momentarily lose concentration for that fatal error.
But this is also why there are reasons for some encouragement. Solskjaer feels the team will be able to properly play this approach once he has everyone properly back, and another player or two in.
He similarly feels he has a foundation. That’s hard to dispute given he also has a defence that – by Opta’s xG measures – has the best defence in the Premier League as regards preventing the opposition creating quality chances.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka personified much of this. He is crucial to the new sturdiness in defence, key to Solskjaer’s tactics in how he also pinned back Andy Robertson, and put in some fine crosses in the attacking third.
This was what Solskjaer was emphasising in that dressing room. It is why many at United believe things will soon tangibly improve on the scoreboard.