The only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s use of the 4-2-3-1 formation might as well be on that list too.
Solskjaer’s almost three-year tenure at Manchester United has been defined by his much-revered 4-2-3-1 system.
The United boss has always preferred to play two holding midfielders — who are supposed to offer adequate protection to the backline — and that is intended to allow the attacking players in that formation to roam free and interchange to some extent when transitioning.
The Norwegian’s persistence with Scott McTominay and Fred has frustrated many supporters across his reign, but the logic behind the pair playing in the double pivot is obvious as they both theoretically allow United’s attackers to enjoy full creative licence.
This has enabled United’s talents to demonstrate their individual excellence under Solskjaer. Yet this reliance on world-class players to produce ‘moments’ has led to accusations of tactical failures; it seems United just don’t have an identity.
Such reliance on individuals producing instead of a cohesive plan across the pitch won’t win you a Premier League title.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is back under pressure as Manchester United manager. The Reds’ victory at Tottenham was soon forgotten as they fell to a dire 2-0 defeat in the Manchester derby, and saw the vultures circling around the Norwegian once again.
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The 4-2-3-1 that had become a certainty under Solskjaer could no longer be justified after the Liverpool debacle and it was clear that something had to change.
Liverpool ruthlessly exploited United and effortlessly found space across the pitch and that result was Solskjaer’s reckoning. His position at the club became increasingly untenable with every goal that went past David de Gea.
After Solskjaer had survived that humiliation, he inevitably changed United’s formation in their next game against Tottenham.
The change was nothing new from Solskjaer. Instead, it was an already tested, safe formation that he had previously enjoyed a degree of success with at United. There was no arguing with his choice to use the 5-3-2 when United won 3-0 against Spurs, though.
While the standard of that Tottenham performance was an obvious caveat, United looked well drilled, cohesive and defensively sound.
They were everything they weren’t against Liverpool in that game. It was an impressive performance and, with Solskjaer under intense pressure to deliver immediate results, the ‘new’ formation seemed a convenient fix.
But it was never going to work long-term.
It is ironic that Solskjaer used 5-3-2 at the start of his tenure and he’s now using it towards what appears to be end of his premiership.
Solskjaer has talked about the importance of United ‘getting on the front foot’ in games but this formation choice contradicts those words.
Although Manchester City are masterful in possession, United looked grossly inferior in the Manchester derby on Saturday as they chased the ball like naïve Labrador puppies. This is what they have been reduced to under Solskjaer. It’s just not good enough.
United weren’t interested in Antonio Conte — the Italian is a pioneer of the 5-3-2 formation — because of his style and yet Solskjaer has reverted back to his approach in this time of crisis. He had to stop the rot but the switch in tactics has indicated the beginning of the end.
That’s if the 4-2 defeat against Leicester at the King Power Stadium last month, or the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool hadn’t done that already.
United didn’t sign their multitude of stars to play in a 5-3-2.
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