Manchester United have been struggling to secure results for the past few weeks.
A 4-2 defeat to Leicester City and a 5-0 loss to Liverpool have undoubtedly given the two lows of the season so far, but even victories have often felt like hard work for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team.
Comeback victories have been the highlights so far, especially in the Champions League. Against Atalanta, United won 3-2 from 2-0 down, after also returning and lowering Villareal 2-1. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner on both occasions.
The inability to control play and convincingly dominate their opponent has shown the weaknesses of Solskjær’s system, and now it seems that United’s title challenge is over before it started.
But Solskjær could possibly learn from Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel to rectify the situation and make a push for United to succeed in knockout competitions, especially the Champions League.
When Tuchel came to Chelsea, he noticed a problem. Chelsea massively underperformed their expected goals (much of it was due to the failed Timo Werner) and therefore lacked chances to win matches, especially those where they had been the biggest attacking force.
It’s very similar to United. Against West Ham in the EFL Cup and Everton and Aston Villa in the league recorded the red 68 shots but had only one goal to show for their efforts.
The clinical nature of United’s front line brought them through last season, but the team seems to have lost its advantage this time, even when it was possible to add Ronaldo.
When Tuchel came in, as he did at the end of the January window, Tuchel did not have the opportunity to improve his front line in the transfer market, so he decided to solve the problem differently.
He understood that his team created enough chances to win the match by scoring one or maybe two goals, but if Chelsea could eliminate the unnecessary conceded goals, he would be able to secure results.
It was a very pragmatic approach that relied on possession and eliminated defensive errors, providing a more robust platform for the attacking talent to secure victories.
By adopting 3-5-2 against Tottenham Hotspur, Solskjær apparently applied many of these principles. Several defenders meant the back line was able to overwhelm the Spurs’ incoherent attack and prevent them from getting shots off. Raphael Varane was especially good at this against Harry Kane last Saturday.
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Several defenders also meant that David de Gea had more businesses to distribute. United did not play as many risky passes from behind, which in turn prevented them from being pushed hard by Spurs.
The more compact lines in 3-5-2 also helped the team retain possession of the ball, while Edinson Cavani lined up as one of two strikers to make up for Ronaldo’s lack of pressure.
Finding a way to accommodate Ronaldo in United’s system due to his goal-scoring achievements, while ignoring the problems he brings to the side out of possession, will help the team push the results out into the difficult matches.
In general, we have enjoyed the fast, free-flowing football from the Solskjær era, and it is entertaining with its high risk and high reward elements. But if United are to take the next step and secure silverware this season, pragmatic football could be the way forward.
Would you like to see 3-5-2 deployed against Atalanta on Tuesday? Follow our United On My Mind writer Casey Evans on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.