After a difficult start to the season, are Manchester United showing signs of life?
To say the season started poorly for Manchester United would be an understatement.
The Red Devils started the season with a stunning 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace and followed that up with a fairly fortunate 3-2 win against Brighton and a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham. There seemed to be a crisis in Manchester, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was firmly planted on the hot seat.
There were some good results, but they came with caveats. United got some wins, but you could always respond to the result with a “yeah, but…”. Yeah, United did beat Newcastle, but it took them a while to take the lead and pull away from a fairly mediocre Newcastle side. Yeah, they went to Paris and beat PSG, but that was such an awful performance from PSG, and there are so many issues with that team and within that club right now (enough to write a completely different article by itself), and it was a largely pedestrian performance from Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. But here stood the biggest test of the season: RB Leipzig, last season’s Champions League semifinalist and considered to be one of the most balanced and complete teams in Europe, led by the young star of football management in Julian Nagelsmann, who traveled to Old Trafford as favorites. Despite the loss of Timo Werner, the Red Bulls retained much of their talented core, including young budding stars Dayot Upamecano, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku.
And United beat the brakes off of them. A complete performance. A strong first half paired with an incredibly dominant second half, and this was not an accident. United were the better team from minute one, putting out arguably their best performance of the season and one of the best of Solskjær’s reign. And in this game, we finally got a demonstration of something people had been calling out for Ole to add to his managerial repertoire for a while. He made a tactical adjustment, making the first move and forcing the opponent to respond. He made actual genuine tactical adjustments.
The “no tactics, just vibes” manager, in both of United’s Champions League matches to be fair, made significant changes to the starting XI, formation, and overall tactical game plan, and in both matches, the changes worked perfectly. The three at the back used against PSG allowed the team to absorb the threat of Neymar and Mbappe while maintaining the width needed to break on the counter. Again, that win can also be pinned on a very poor PSG performance, but it was still a notable tactical decision that paid off. Against Leipzig, Ole saw a team that wants to attack on the counter with pace, utilizing a back three and attacking fullbacks to break forward quickly. United needed to be able to control the tempo of the match, and Ole decided to play with a midfield diamond in order to overload the center of the pitch and control the tempo and possession more often against a team that only really fielded two midfielders. Matić played as a holding midfielder sitting in front of the defense, while Pogba and Fred played as more box-to-box number eights and Donny van de Beek played behind the strikers. It worked wonders, as Leipzig were just not able to get anything going their way early on. Following Greenwood’s opener, Leipzig changed to a 4-2-3-1, but it was ultimately not enough to get back into the game. Nagelsmann himself admitted that he did not anticipate United playing with four in midfield, as that is not a formation they had used previously. Being unprepared for this team, Nagelsmann and Leipzig were already a step behind their opponents, and United punished them for it.
United had never really played with a midfield diamond before, that is correct. But if you remember our piece from earlier regarding United’s purchase of van de Beek, I highlighted the options and variety that United could now utilize. Many questioned why United signed van de Beek, saying he did not fill a need in this team. Well, now we saw the answer. Having a player not only of van de Beek’s individual quality, but also of his level of intelligence and tactical flexibility, allows United to deploy a midfield diamond, a much different look compared to their 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 previously utilized under Solskjær. This allows United to have a more balanced and solid midfield while not surrendering their attacking options, and van de Beek has the ability to realistically play in any of the positions in this midfield, though he would likely thrive more as a 10 or box-to-box eight, and provide a level of attacking creativity and work rate needed to make everything work. While it was not a scintillating performance from the Dutchman, who came off in the 68th minute, his presence in the midfield was important in making the formation work. United’s midfield this season has struggled to find the right balance that allowed their star players to make an impact, and they seem to have found that sense of balance here. With less of a defensive responsibility, Pogba was able to get forward and have an influence on the attack, assisting Mason Greenwood’s opening goal. Bruno Fernandes was able to come on in the second half and make an impact in attack without worrying about what was going on behind him. It worked, and it was important in throwing Leipzig off of their game plan. However, it would be unfair to say it was only the formation that had an impact and allowed United’s midfield to be this effective.
No, we must have an entire section to offer a special shoutout to a player that has gone under the radar quite a bit recently. Fred, the midfielder that Jose Mourinho initially did not want, has become one of United’s most influential players. He is not glamorous, he will not score spectacular goals or provide breath-taking assists, but he is important. He does the work that goes mostly unnoticed when United are playing well. He keeps things ticking over in midfield, winning tackles when needed and playing the safe and necessary passes needed to recycle possession or get the dynamic attacking players into good positions to counter. His presence provided a bit of balance and calmness to the midfield, providing someone able to do the work needed to give players like Pogba and Fernandes and Rashford the platform to succeed. This is not new either, he has been at this level for a while now. Back in December, when United’s resurgence first began, it was the midfield pairing of him and Scott McTominay that began to provide balance to a fragile midfield. Against Sevilla, in a match United fans will likely want to forget, he was easily the best United player on the pitch. Should United stay in this midfield diamond, or at least keep it in the tactical portfolio, having a player like Fred play in this role will help them maintain superiority in midfield, especially against teams like Leipzig, who sacrifice midfield possession for speed. His remarkable turnaround from when he arrived under Mourinho is a testament to his ability and determination as a footballer, and it is something that deserves more recognition than he has received. The victory over Leipzig only reinforced the skill and necessity of Fred in this team.
There is obviously more to talk about from the match, but it seems ancillary to those two points. Marcus Rashford’s historic hat trick was a remarkable achievement for a player and man that can seemingly do no wrong. Anthony Martial finding the back of the net, even if only from a penalty, could do wonders in restoring his confidence. Mason Greenwood scoring and playing well in this second striker role bodes well for his ongoing development. However, the real reasons that gave me hope for a United resurgence were stated previously. This match showed growth in tactical management from Ole and a depth in personnel and performance that United have lacked when compared to their top four counterparts.
But why is this a question, then? Why are we questioning whether United have truly shown signs of life? It was laid out in front of us against Leipzig, right? Well, that is true. But the unfortunate theme that has been a constant for United since Ole took over as caretaker manager is that we really do not know what the real United looks like. Under the Norwegian, United have had runs of brilliance and runs of mediocrity. For a few matches, they look like they are one or two pieces shy of being title contenders, but then, almost on a dime, they turn into a team that look like they are clinging onto their Top Six status for dear life. When Ole was caretaker manager, they went on that now famous 12 match unbeaten run in the league, but only won four matches from the beginning of March to the end of the season. The following season, they were inconsistent at best and awful at worst, but in the second half of the season, especially after the league returned from lockdown, they were arguably the best team on form in the league. Since then, they started this season awfully, but paired that poor start with two fantastic Champions League wins.
So which is the real United?
Well, no one really knows. But for United to put these doubts to bed, they need to kick on from these wins and show an actual run of consistency in form and performance that they have not been able to go on since Ole got the permanent job. Their next two league matches, at home against Arsenal and away to Everton, will be crucial for their season. They are about as close to being “must-win” matches as can be for matches in early November. As much as overall league placement is important, as both teams will likely rival United in the hunt for European places, these two matches are more about laying down a standard for what this United team should be, and what we all know they can be should they find the level of consistency they need.
It is all well and good getting that big, headline win. Spurs know all about that this season. But if you are not able to maintain that high level of performance consistently, your team will never truly be a contender for major honors. It is not about the statement win, it is about what happens after. Ole has done well to get to this point, but now he has to figure out what happens now. United have not awoken from unconsciousness, but there is a heartbeat.
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