Premier League 2018/19: Manchester United vs Huddersfield Town
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s arrival at Old Trafford has been like a breath of fresh air for everyone concerned. The Norwegian made his intentions clear in his very first game in charge; a swashbuckling 5-1 hammering of Cardiff City which saw Manchester United playing at a noticeably higher tempo. Solskjaer has got the team playing quicker, more expansive football while also getting them to increase their work-rate, and while Cardiff were obliging opponents, Huddersfield would provide a (slightly) sterner test. We take a look at how Ole’s boys fared in his first game at Old Trafford as Manchester United’s caretaker manager.
Ole flips the midfield to good effect
Against Cardiff, United started with a midfield triangle of Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, where Matic dropped deep between the centre-backs to allow Pogba and Herrera to move into spaces further up the pitch.
Here at Old Trafford, Solskjaer flipped the triangle – Fred and Matic played as the holding midfielders, staying deep and protecting the two centre-backs, which allowed Pogba to move up the pitch and play as a number 10. This also complemented the full-backs movement up the field, as it ensured that there were always at least four players to guard against any Huddersfield counter-attacks.
This was an intelligent move, as Huddersfield are a capable side, especially as a pressing unit in advanced areas, and it made sense to have an extra player in that zone of the pitch to retain control over proceedings.
The biggest sub-plot behind Jose Mourinho’s sacking was the complete breakdown of his relationship with Paul Pogba. The Frenchman had been relegated to a spot on the bench in Mourinho’s last few games in charge and even suffered the ignominy of being an unused substitute at Anfield when United desperately needed someone to take charge of the game and haul them back into it.
That turned out to be Mourinho’s final game as Manchester United manager, and while there were numerous reports that Pogba celebrated as wildly as anyone else when the Portuguese’s sacking was confirmed, he too needed to win back the fans’ approval, having been rarely better than mediocre this season.
Under Solskjaer though, the Frenchman looks reborn, playing with the swagger and confidence of a World Cup winner as he has been freed of Mourinho’s tactical shackles. Against Huddersfield, Pogba was given the license to create while playing as a left-sided number 10, and consequently almost all of United’s attacking endeavours flowed through him.
He was helped by his teammates – Jesse Lingard’s intelligent movement inside from the left created space for him to run into, while Marcus Rashford stretched the Huddersfield defence and forced them to play deeper. This, combined with the United full-backs stretching Huddersfield out wide as well, meaning that the Frenchman had a lot of space in midfield from which to dictate and score.
The statistics bear out the influence Pogba had on this match – 117 touches, 86 passes completed, 5 shots, 4 shots on target, 4 completed take-ons, 3 chances created, 3 interceptions, 3 fouls won, 2 goals. That is a picture of an almost-perfect midfield performance, and it has been made possible through Solskjaer’s tactics as well as Pogba’s own improved performances. Time will tell if this is sustainable, but on this evidence, it looks as if Solskjaer has unlocked the key to getting Pogba performing at his best.
United were made to work a little harder for the three points than against Cardiff, but they ultimately got the job done at Old Trafford. Once again, the Red Devils played at a high tempo, pushing the full-backs forward and pressing in the opposition half – all traits that were absent under Mourinho and have been part of the changes that Solskjaer has made.
The players also look like they are enjoying themselves once again, and that, along with any tactical tweaks the Norwegian makes, looks like being the biggest difference between him and Mourinho. United face Bournemouth at home on Sunday, and this looks like yet another gentle fixture which should allow Solskjaer to get his feet firmly under the table at Old Trafford.
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