Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Ole's tactical nous showing in big battles

Monday 08 March 2021 15:14

There was a moment in the second half of the Manchester derby on Sunday when the two managers were engaged in a heated debate.

The upshot appeared to be Dean Henderson had deliberately kicked the ball into touch to allow Marcus Rashford to be replaced and, as United had sportingly returned the ball to Crystal Palace when James McCarthy was forced to hobble off in midweek, maybe there was the thought City should play it back to the keeper.

However, Mason Greenwood was not quite ready to come on and it became clear the Blues would instead look to start another move in their ultimately fruitless pursuit of redressing a two-goal deficit.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola exchanged a few cross words but were later seen embracing after the final whistle when mulling over the finer points of United's excellent 2-0 triumph. Perhaps a mark of the respect between the two men.

Ole was urging and cajoling his troops from the touchline in this latest tactical battle with Guardiola who, despite the club rivalry, is clearly one of the leading coaches in the world game. Previous experience of his Barcelona side in the Champions League tells us that, even before he rocked up in Manchester.

Solskjaer's record in head-to-heads with the Spaniard stands up to closer scrutiny and the context of three points gained against a side that had won 21 matches on the trot should also be taken into account. United got our tactics spot on at the Etihad Stadium, just as we did last season in winning 2-1, and this was clearly no fluke.

There is also the 2-0 victory at Old Trafford a year ago to take into account, sadly still the last game played in front of fans at the Theatre of Dreams.

There was a strategic approach to the weekend clash, exploiting space behind City's attacking full-backs and launching raids in numbers, almost hunting in packs. The Reds could have been 2-0 ahead in the first few minutes when Luke Shaw was denied by Ederson and the brilliant left-back later added to Bruno Fernandes's penalty when the home defence was severely tested again.

The decision to play with a high defensive line was another notable part of the gameplan with Dean Henderson and the back four ensuring a well-earned and precious clean sheet away to the runaway Premier League leaders. Aaron Wan-Bissaka nullified Raheem Sterling's considerable threat again while Daniel James, such an important asset in terms of his energy and pressing, was one of numerous tireless workers.

Yet United had been criticised extensively in the build-up to the derby, some will argue with justification after a disappointing 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace, even if it was another unbeaten game (21, now 22) on the road in this most relentless of seasons when the games come every few days.

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The general narrative around the previous fixture, another goalless draw, at Chelsea, was also slightly puzzling. There was much talk of 'dropping points' at Stamford Bridge and some curious initial post-match chat in the Sky Sports studio about how surprising it was that Thomas Tuchel's men were looking to get the winner just as much as the second-placed Reds.

Everybody associated with the club knows how difficult it is to win in this part of the capital, particularly against a team revitalised by the German's appointment. Their subsequent 1-0 victory at Liverpool confirmed their good form and defensive fortitude, which clearly contributed to another blank for the Reds in a big game. And this is another point worth making.

The graphic doing the rounds about United's record against the so-called 'top six' was used as one to beat the team with. Regardless of the make-up of these top sides, it does seem particularly unfair to leave Leicester City out of this equation for instance, the stat being highlighted was the fact Bruno's early penalty against Tottenham was our only goal in such fixtures this term. A single goal scored and seven conceded was making grim reading and sparking headlines like this one in The Sun: 'United's dreadful record against 'big six' extended with dire draw against Chelsea'.

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'Boring, boring Man United' it suggested and it may have been a valid argument. The club prides itself on attacking football but there is so clearly another way of looking at things. Now add Sunday's win to the graphic and things already look very different. It is easy to write off the Spurs defeat as an anomaly after Anthony Martial's early red card and the fact the team was off the pace at the start of 2020/21 after a lack of a real pre-season.

Since then, seven games and only the one win but, also, only the single defeat - which never looked on the cards until Arsenal gained a second-half penalty that allowed them to edge another tight affair. So Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's spot-kick is the only goal conceded in these most recent seven 'top-six' fixtures, with the last four matches being trips to Anfield, the Emirates Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium. Surely that deserves some credit?

Coaches are often credited with shutting out top-class opponents away from home and producing such tactical masterclasses. It is the foundation on which victories can be built and, even if the goals have been lacking at the other end, it must be evidence of superb defensive organisation. However, the narrative for much of the season appears to have been that the Reds have not been good enough defensively.

There is still a trip to Tottenham and home game with Liverpool to come in this regard and then a full assessment can be made about United's record. Last term's table suggested United performed pretty well in these toughest of fixtures. In fact, it could be argued Solskjaer and his coaching team are getting a lot of things right in these strategic battles.

So praise should be forthcoming for Ole, and the team for defending so resolutely so often, and a greater deal of balance when looking at the overall picture. 


Tottenham (H) 1-6
Chelsea (H) 0-0
Arsenal (H) 0-1
Man City (H) 0-0
Liverpool (A) 0-0
Arsenal (A) 0-0
Chelsea (A) 0-0
Man City (A) 2-0


Chelsea (H) 4-0
Arsenal (H) 1-1
Liverpool (H) 1-1
Tottenham (H) 2-1
Man City (A) 2-1
Arsenal (A) 0-2
Liverpool (A) 0-2
Chelsea (A) 2-0
Man City (H) 2-0
Tottenham (A) 1-1

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.