Will Solskjaer stick to winning game plan from Tottenham game?

Should Ole stick or twist? His Plan B earned a victory at Spurs to relieve some pressure, but keeping all his attackers happy in a 5-3-2 system could be a problem – starting against Atalanta tonight

  • Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lifted some of the pressure on himself with win at Spurs
  • Man United manager was feeling the heat after last week’s 5-0 loss to Liverpool
  • He went to his Plan B and fielded a 5-3-2 formation to get a result on Saturday
  • Solskjaer may be tempted to stick with this game plan for big games this week
  • It does rely heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani – combined age 70
  • Attackers Rashford, Greenwood and Sancho are also left warming the bench 

It was the right plan for an emergency. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, fearing for his job, set Manchester United up with a belt and braces five in defence and saw his team return to winning ways at Tottenham on Saturday.

Eschewing his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, the United manager went with three central defenders, two wing-backs and two holding midfielders – effectively eight defensive-minded players with just three attackers – to ensure the current crisis at Old Trafford didn’t get any worse.

United duly won 3-0, a result that led to the sacking of Spurs manager Nuno Espirito Santo on Monday morning rather than a similar fate befalling the Norwegian, as might well have been the case.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer salutes the travelling Manchester United fans after the win at Tottenham

The win over Tottenham marked a vastly improved performance by Cristiano Ronaldo and Co

But there are serious doubts that Solskjaer’s plan for the Tottenham game is sustainable going forward, with crunch matches against Atalanta in the Champions League and Manchester City in the Premier League coming up.

We assess the pros and cons of the system to judge whether Solskjaer should stick or twist ahead of a pivotal week.

Can Ronaldo and Cavani play every single game?

The United team on Saturday wasn’t bristling with its usual attacking menace but in combining Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani as a forward pair, with Bruno Fernandes in behind them, Solskjaer had more than enough threat.

Ronaldo ended a four-game goal drought in the Premier League with a brilliantly-taken volley then played Cavani through for the second.

But while both Ronaldo and Cavani are proven match-winners and keep themselves in excellent shape, they do have a combined age of 70 and so surely can’t play in every single game.

Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo combined to excellent effect in the 3-0 victory

The Portuguese star scored a brilliantly-taken volley to hand United a first-half lead 

United’s team vs Spurs 

(5-3-2) De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Varane, Maguire (c), Shaw; Fernandes (Matic 76), McTominay, Fred; Cavani (Lingard 82), Ronaldo (Rashford 71)

Substitutes not used: Henderson; Bailly, Greenwood, Dalot, Sancho, Van de Beek

It was the first time two United players over the age of 34 have combined for a goal since Paul Scholes set up Ryan Giggs to score against Newcastle in August 2010.

Ronaldo remains one of the world’s best players and will demand of Solskjaer that he is involved in each game.

He’ll expect to be the first name on the teamsheet against Atalanta on Tuesday and City on Saturday.

Cavani is younger but suffers his fair share of niggling injuries that see him miss two or three games at a time before he returns to the team.

Solskjaer would have to be careful not to push the Uruguayan beyond his limits but having been a more peripheral figure in the opening weeks of the season – partly because of Ronaldo’s arrival in his position – Cavani is desperate to get more involved.

Can Solskjaer keep his other attackers happy?

With both Ronaldo and Cavani putting forward a strong case to maintain a starting berth, persisting with the 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape will cause Solskjaer a headache when it comes to his other forwards.

Marcus Rashford came off the bench to add United’s third goal late on but former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves suggested the manner of his celebration told us he was ‘fuming’.

The England forward took to Twitter to deny this, claiming it was just ‘pure relief’ pouring out of him after a tough week that obviously started with that 5-0 thumping by Liverpool.

Rashford (left) started on the bench but came on to score a result-clinching third in a 3-0 win

Obviously the issue with this formation is that it reduces the number of attackers from four or more to just three and Fernandes is always going to be the favoured lock-picker in the No 10 role.

So Rashford, as well as Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho, began Saturday’s game on the bench. Greenwood and Sancho never did get on the field.

Having not long returned from his shoulder injury, Rashford will be champing at the bit to get a regular run of games. His goals against Leicester, Atalanta and Spurs suggests his lay-off has not blunted his sharpness.

Jadon Sancho spent another match warming the bench having failed to get on at Tottenham

And Greenwood, who has four goals this season, can also rightfully claim to be a bit miffed at being demoted to the bench. The Spurs win was the first Premier League fixture he hasn’t started this season.

As for Sancho, the £73million summer signing from Borussia Dortmund just hasn’t produced the goods so far, with no goals or assists from 11 appearances in United colours.

Naturally, it was going to take a little time for the winger to adapt to Premier League football but the fact Solskjaer has benched him for the last three games doesn’t bode too well.

Mason Greenwood would be another forced to spend more time on the bench with this system

Squeezing all these attacking talents – and we haven’t even mentioned Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard or Paul Pogba – into the usual United formation is pretty challenging.

Strip away another attacking position to suit a more cautious game plan and you suddenly have a quite brilliant set of substitutes but players far from content at being among them.

Is the balance of the team all wrong?

Given the fall-out from the historically bad Liverpool defeat, with many believing Solskjaer should have gone, you can’t blame the manager for erring on the side of caution against Spurs.

Boosted by the timely return from injury of Raphael Varane, he was able to field him alongside Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof to ensure his strongest central defenders were all on the pitch. 

Harry Maguire (left) and Raphael Varane (right) combine to halt Giovani Lo Celso on Saturday

Man United fixtures 

Premier League unless stated

Tuesday Atalanta (A)

Champions League

Saturday Manchester City (H)

November 20 Watford (A)

November 23 Villarreal (A)

Champions League

November 28 Chelsea (A)

December 2 Arsenal (H)

They successfully kept Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min quiet – Kane only had four touches in United’s box – and were aided when needed by wing-backs Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

In midfield, Fred and Scott McTominay, United’s two most industrious players in that position, gained a firm grip on the contest and didn’t relinquish it.

So United were able to get the better of Tottenham in the key areas and pick up the win they urgently needed.

But if Solskjaer persists with this set-up, with just three attack-minded players involved, it’s very easy to argue that it’s not in keeping with United’s traditions.

A former striker himself, Solskjaer fully subscribes to the romantic notion that United sides should be looking to attack at every opportunity, overwhelming opponents on the counter.

It was the right game plan for the Spurs game given the circumstances, and could well work against Atalanta and City too, but it isn’t the right balance for United long-term.

Another problem is where Paul Pogba would fit in to all this. He was suspended for the Tottenham game following his red card against Liverpool but if Solskjaer sticks to this plan, the Frenchman could also be little more than a sub. 

Would Paul Pogba get back into the United side if they continue with Fred and McTominay?

Has this game plan worked for Solskjaer before?

It really has been a mixed bag when Solskjaer has gone with three at the back in the past.

There have been times when it’s worked very well – Saturday, the 2-1 win away to Paris Saint-Germain last season, 2-0 wins over Chelsea and City away from home in the 2019-20 campaign.

But there have also been times when it’s been a bit of a disaster – the 3-2 loss to RB Leipzig that saw United dumped out of last season’s Champions League after the group stage or the 3-1 FA Cup semi-final loss to Chelsea in 2020.

So it’s far from a failsafe Plan B for Solskjaer when he wants a bespoke plan for a certain match that’s different from the normal balance of the 4-2-3-1.

United played three at the back when they were dumped out of the Champions League by RB Leipzig last season 

However, the same system worked to good effect when they defeated Paris Saint-Germain

It has been used more than once against City to good effect, so Solskjaer may be tempted to deploy it again at Old Trafford on Saturday.

And given how Atalanta were able to cut through United so easily on the counter at Old Trafford the other week, it might be an idea to keep going with it for that one too.

Going forward, however, when the pressure hopefully reduces a bit, Solskjaer is likely to revert to Plan A, if only to keep his array of attackers happy.

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