How Solskjaer's Reds are scoring from all angles
In recent weeks we've seen the Reds display an eye-catching attacking unpredictability, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saying he wants his team to "play without fear". Clearly the message has been heard loud and clear, with his charges breaking down teams in a variety of ways, as we explore here...
OUT FOR THE COUNTER
OUT FOR THE COUNTER
The ball was still spinning in Hugo Lloris's net when Gary Neville gave his take on Marcus Rashford's winner against Tottenham on 13 January. "It's devastating from United," said the Reds legend, from his co-commentary perch at Wembley Stadium. "Pogba's pass is world-class and Lingard is alive in transition. It's brilliant from Rashford. Solskjaer's tactics have worked an absolute treat."
With the pace of that trio, plus Anthony Martial making up the attacking quartet, the Reds are well equipped to pick off any team on the counterattack. Newcastle United had fallen foul of the same conundrum earlier in the month, going behind to Romelu Lukaku's opener and committing numbers forward in search of an equaliser. That left space to be exploited by fast breakaways, with Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez combining to tee up a calm finish from Rashford. Devastating.
FEEDING OFF SCRAPS
A fringe benefit of an increased number of shots is a heightened chance of rebounds, and United have been alert when it comes to following in spilled efforts. When Victor Lindelof's powerful header was just about kept out against Huddersfield, Nemanja Matic was on hand to tap into an unguarded goal, while Romelu Lukaku's opener at Newcastle followed careful study of the game.
"You have to be ready. That's what the manager asked of me before the game," said Lukaku, a substitute that day. "I know his [Rashford's] shooting technique and he did it in the first half, so I was ready."
SHOOT ON SIGHT
Having a bash from distance is a welcome risk in this current United set-up. In the first 24 games of the campaign, the Reds mustered two goals from outside the area in open play, a tally matched within the first two games of Solskjaer's reign as caretaker boss.
With the side's attackers playing higher upfield in the majority of games, more space has been created for their midfield counterparts to give it a crack from long range. Ander Herrera demonstrated as much at Cardiff, with his 25-yarder looping United into a two-goal lead, and Paul Pogba exploited time and space to guide home a sublime long-ranger against Huddersfield on Boxing Day.
"Our attacking players overall are really enjoying playing close to the opposition box," said Herrera. "We are creating a lot of chances and we are being the protagonist team in every game, so we are really happy."
A greater mastery of the art of defending has reduced the number of one-on-one situations arising in the modern game, particularly those constructed in general play, rather than in transition or following a counter-attack. In recent weeks, however, United's growing unpredictability has prompted a resurgence in such settings.
Jesse Lingard latched on to a Paul Pogba pass to round Neil Etheridge and round off the scoring at Cardiff last month, before Romelu Lukaku converted similar openings against Bournemouth and Reading in the space of six days.
The Belgian was quick to salute the influence of the caretaker manager on clinical finishing in such situations, admitting: "Marcus and I, and Anthony, are learning a lot from him, especially on the offensive side. He is just trying to make us better and win games. So far, so good, and we need to keep going."
At the Cardiff City Stadium, Anthony Martial provided an early Christmas gift for all Reds by capping a stunning team goal to put United 3-1 up. Having drifted infield from his left-wing station, the Frenchman picked up possession near the centre circle, meandered towards goal and took stock of the situation.
Martial was 30 yards from goal, with six Cardiff players between him and home goalkeeper Neil Etheridge. In the space of four seconds, three crisp passes – Martial to Pogba, Pogba to Lingard, Lingard to Martial – had cleared a route to goal, and given United’s no.11 a calm finish inside the far post.
“It was all about speed of passing and movement,” marvelled James Robson, of the Evening Standard. “It was incisive and clinical. It was a thing of beauty, and the sort of moment to prompt eye-rubbing from United fans, trying to comprehend what they'd seen.”
The collective nature of the goal was replicated next time out, when stirring interplay between Ander Herrera, Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata culminated in Herrera teeing up Pogba to put a bedraggled Huddersfield Town side out of their misery.
For all the benefits of planning and premeditation, sometimes it takes off-the-cuff brilliance to unlock an opponent. Marcus Rashford has proven particularly adept at such befuddling brilliance, destroying both Bournemouth and Brighton at Old Trafford in recent weeks with moments of inspiration.
Cherries defenders Nathan Ake and Diego Rico will still wonder how the 21-year-old turned possession near the corner flag into a tap-in for Paul Pogba. Ake was left trailing when Rashford knocked the ball to the defender’s right and ran around him, while Rico was sent packing by a jaw-dropping 'elastico', leaving Rashford to fire in a perfect cross for Pogba to slide home.
“He hasn’t got a right to go past the second defender,” eulogised manager Solskjaer. The fastest feet in Manchester were at it again when Chris Hughton’s Seagulls landed in town a few weeks later. This time, Rashford waved goodbye to Pascal Gross by shifting the ball from left foot to right, leaving him with the far-from-simple task of placing his finish in the far top corner. Genius.
READY, SET, GOAL
United’s collective prowess from dead-ball situations has clearly sharpened in recent weeks, with five goals coming direct from set-pieces. The very first goal of the Solskjaer era began with a Marcus Rashford free-kick, thundered home from 25 yards against Cardiff City, while the striker’s blasted replica at Newcastle prompted a rebound tap-in for Romelu Lukaku. After the latter, the caretaker manager grinned: “He must have been watching Cristiano [Ronaldo] when he was practising!"
The Reds have also been deadly from 12 yards, scoring four penalties since late December. Jesse Lingard at Cardiff, Juan Mata against Reading and, most recently, Paul Pogba at home to Brighton and Burnley – though Solskjaer insisted: "Paul is the penalty taker, but we have got players who want to take penalties and that is the key. If they want to take it, they can argue among themselves but Paul is the nominated one.”
FROM THE FLANKS
“This is what Manchester United are supposed to represent,” cooed James Ducker, of the Daily Telegraph, after the 4-1 defeat of Bournemouth. “United’s goals were minor classics.” Wing play has long been an Old Trafford hallmark, but the modern age of inverted wingers has seen an evolution in the art, with less goals arising from out-swinging crosses.
Following on from Paul Pogba’s opener, the Reds netted another first half pair with inch-perfect centres guided deep into the Cherries’ penalty area; both capitalising on perfectly-timed runs from their intended targets. “Begovic was caught in two minds but Pogba was not, running to meet the ball and then rising to power it home with a fine header,” wrote Ducker, of Herrera’s unplayable cross for Pogba. For good measure, Rashford then slid in to volley home Anthony Martial’s superb centre.