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1. Football can be fun
It could be easy to draw too much inference from a single game of football. Ultimately, Manchester United achieved a comfortable victory against a poor Cardiff City side who occupy 17th position in the Premier League table. Neil Warnock was furious with the display of his side, complaining that “our defending was Sunday League… Solskjaer will be disappointed they didn’t get eight or nine”. However, from a Manchester United perspective, this victory represented a dream start for the newly assembled coaching team. Cardiff had won 4 of their last 5 Premier League home games, whilst United’s away record has been poor this season, so the ease with which they achieved victory was impressive.
Over the last two and a half seasons, the United faithful have become accustomed to the Jose Mourinho brand of football, which has never been pleasant on the eyes. Following his victory over Ajax in the Europa League final in 2016, he famously opined “There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many titles”. Style and entertainment have not been high on the agenda at Old Trafford for some time. This emphatic victory over Cardiff seems significant not for the fact United have claimed the three points – it is likely a Mourinho side would have picked up the win – but the manner of the win offers hope of a much more progressive and entertaining style under the stewardship of the new interim manager.
Manchester United controlled 75% of possession in the game, which was unheard of in the Mourinho era. They also managed 17 shots on goal, with 8 on target. Their pass completion rate was above 85%. This domination also differed to the Louis Van Gaal sides that typically enjoyed wades of inert, sterile, slow possession. At Cardiff, United were slick and incisive. The passing was purposeful, and the movement was fluid. This was the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired that a Manchester United side has scored five goals in any competition. It was also the first time this season United have recorded more sprints than their opponents (119 to 99). It was only the second time this season they have outrun their opponents, as they outran Cardiff by more than 5 kilometres (Opta stats). In an apparent reference to performances to this point in the season, Solskjaer was keen to impress an early message to the players: “One of the things I talked about today was that a Manchester United team should never be outworked. It doesn’t matter what team you play, you should run more than them and then your skills will give you a chance to win the game”. A simple message, but it was evidently received by the players.
Of course, Mourinho asserted earlier this season that “people who don’t understand football analyse with statistics”. The statistics do tell a story, but just watching the side in action at Cardiff, the renewed sense of optimism and enjoyment from the players was tangible. These were the same players we have watched in action all season, but on this occasion they were dictating the play, getting players ahead of the ball in numbers, rotating their positions and actively seeking the ball. It was an absolute pleasure to watch having been deprived of this kind of expression and quality for such a long time.
2. The Attack Clicked
United lined up with an attacking trio of Rashford, Martial, and Lingard with Paul Pogba operating in an advanced position. This combination posed Cardiff problems to which they could find no answer – the third goal scored by Anthony Martial illustrating the pace, movement, and one-touch passing that fans have been pleading for. Again, even just a few days into his role, the style and patterns of play Solskjaer expects were evident. He said “When you’ve got Martial and Jesse Lingard down either side, Rashford up top with Paul supporting them, it’s exhilarating to watch and as long as we keep up that standard we’ll keep picking up points”.
The players demonstrated the ability to inter-change their positions, making them so much more difficult for Cardiff to pick up effectively. There were far fewer aimless long balls, and no target man up front to aim for. Jesse Lingard picked up the man of the match award, and deservedly so. Beyond his two goals, he occupied positions all over the pitch, had a feverish work rate, and his movement off the ball created space for his attacking colleagues. The prospect of a return to fitness for Alexis Sanchez, and the option of introducing Juan Mata is an enticing prospect as both should compliment this fluid style perfectly.
Romelu Lukaku was missing due to being granted compassionate leave, but it is hard to see where he fits into this faster, more skilful and precise method. It was clear that the Belgian needed a break having played so much football over the past couple of seasons, and it is hoped he will return rejuvenated, and hopefully a few pounds lighter. He is a player of considerable talent and is a proven goal scorer in this league; but in a fluid system, it is unlikely Lukaku will be able to flourish. He was reportedly one of the few in the playing squad not celebrating Mourinho’s departure, and he may be downgraded from his previous status as one of the side’s guaranteed starters.
3. Paul Pogba will be central to Solskjaer’s Plans
Pogba has been the central character in the pantomime leading to the departure of Jose Mourinho. Reportedly labelled a “virus” by his former manager following his catastrophic performance away to Southampton, he found himself out of form and out of favour. Following on from his ‘caption this’ Instagram post that immediately followed the news of Mourinho’s sacking, those in the media including former players have been queuing up to express their disgust at the Manchester United club record signing. Gary Neville responded to the post telling him to “do one”, and Darren Fletcher spoke to the BBC saying he needed a “kick up the backside”, further asserting “You have got to go and prove yourself now. A new manager has to come in and demand more of him to lead this team forward”.
Pogba has always been a divisive player, but his character is what comes under scrutiny, not his talent. There has long been talk of how to best unlock the potential he undoubtedly has. Having coached him as part of the Manchester United youth set up, Solskjaer knows him better than most, and he is eager to make Pogba a talisman for this side. He stated following the match “There’ll be different solutions to different problems that teams cause us, but Paul is capable of playing as an 8, as a 10, as a six. So he’s got quality to play many positions and today I thought he did excellent”. On a personal level, he seems to have an excellent relationship with Solskjaer, which is a polar opposite to his predecessor and should lead to a harmonious working environment for Pogba with his new manager. Solskjaer said in his pre-match press conference “He’s a World Cup winner, Paul is a terrific lad. When I had him as a kid he was always the happy-go-lucky lad and he’s not changed personality wise. He’s a better player, and of course he’s one I want to get the best out of”.
Pogba’s performance against Cardiff was excellent, and he gives the impression he responds better to praise than criticism. He also benefitted from a far greater array of passing options and pace around him in this game. If this remains the case, and he is accommodated to accentuate his obvious talent in this side, we may finally see the player that the world record transfer fee suggested he would be. The balance of the midfield even made Nemanja Matic look a far more accomplished player than he has done for at least the past year. His distribution, like Pogba’s, benefitted greatly from the movement and speed of the players in front of him.
4. Full Backs will attack under Ole
During the match commentary, Martin Keown was at pains to point out the constantly advanced positions of Ashley Young and Luke Shaw. Full back is an absolutely crucial position in modern football, and with the death of the traditional wingers in the game – we now see an abundance of inside forwards – it is full backs who offer width to the attacks. Manchester United have not operated like many of the top sides in this regard. Manchester City invested heavily in Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to provide pace, power and quality delivery down either flank; Liverpool have the boundless energy of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold; and Chelsea’s title winning side benefitted from Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso getting forward at every opportunity.
This was the first time in recent years that a Manchester United side have had both full backs pushing ahead of the play. It had become customary for full backs at United to exercise caution more than their lungs, and they operated as defenders and little more. This change in ethos was absolutely crucial to the ease with which victory was achieved in this game. It may not always be possible for Shaw and Young to venture forward with such reckless abandon, but it was another statement of intent from Solskjaer in what looked like a far better fit for the players available in this squad. The qualities of this squad lie in attack, and it makes sense to play to the strengths of the squad as the defence is clearly not fit for purpose when trying to contain the better sides in the division.
5. Lindelöf and Jones were a solid pairing
Both Victor Lindelöf and Phil Jones enjoyed accomplished performances both in terms of their defensive efforts, and their use and distribution of the ball. Both looked comfortable at bringing the ball out of defence, and this was clearly another instruction given to them. This shows a level of confidence in their ability that they will be unaccustomed to in recent times. Confidence and positivity are infectious, and both players looked to be enjoying a new lease of life compared, especially in the case of Jones, to the disastrous performances we had seen from him this season.
The defence benefitted from the fact that United controlled possession, which removes the relentless levels of pressure that is generated from inviting opposing teams to attack and dictate the play. Playing on the front foot suits this team, and if this is indeed what we will see for the rest of the season, it will benefit players both in defence as well as attack.
This outing represented a near-perfect start for Solskjaer and United, who were even a little unfortunate to concede the penalty for handball given against Rashford. With a favourable run of fixtures in the horizon, it is hard not to feel optimistic at the prospect of not only a run of wins, but entertaining performances also.