It’s safe to say things at Manchester United could be going better. The Red Devils have lost six of their last eight matches in all competitions. Their 4-0 loss to Everton on Sunday was their fifth successive away loss, their longest away losing streak since 1981. That’s bad. It’s really bad!
The fact that those five away losses came immediately after United won a club record nine straight away matches makes this even more perplexing.
On March 28th, Manchester United removed the ‘caretaker’ title from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and made him their permanent manager. Since that appointment, the club has won two and lost four, and those two wins have been two of their worst performances under Solskjaer.
How has this happened? Was the hiring of Solskjaer a drastic mistake? Or is there just a lot more going on here?
The truth is, this collapse is Solskjaer’s fault and it’s also not his fault. Those statements are mutually exclusive. Both of them can be, and are, true.
United aren’t losing because Solskjaer is overmatched tactically. They’re losing because he ran the team into the ground.
When Solskjaer took over for Jose Mourinho, United were statistically among the laziest teams in the league. They averaged 67.2 miles covered per game in under Mourinho, with only Cardiff and West Ham averaging less. This wasn’t because the team quit on Mourinho, but was actually the norm during the Mourinho years. (Seriously, this article is from September 2016, this one from Nov 2017).
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Mourinho is not known for playing a fast attacking brand of football that requires a lot of running, and neither was his Old Trafford predecessor Louis van Gaal. Despite United being a team that historically used the massive Old Trafford pitch to run teams down, neither manager wanted to play that way.
When Solskjaer took over, he planned to get back to the quick attacking football of United’s past. Considering his team had the likes of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard, this made a lot of sense. Solskjaer unleashed his attacking talent to great effect. The team scored 12 goals in his first three games. They won eight in a row and the first game they didn’t win, a 2-2 draw against Burnley saw them score two goals in the final five minutes to get a draw. It was one of those old classic Old Trafford comebacks.
But here’s the thing. After four-and-a-half years of playing a style of football that didn’t require running, the players weren’t fit enough to just start playing a much higher intensity. If they didn’t properly build up their fitness, the increased work load would surely either tire the team out or lead to injuries. Considering Solskjaer took over right as the Premier League entered the Festive Period, the busiest part of the calendar, time was the one thing these players didn’t have.
By mid-Febuary the added workrate started to catch up with United’s players. Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, and Nemanja Matic all picked up muscle injuries. The extensive injury list meant that the fit first team players would need to be relied on even more heavily, taxing their legs even more.
Marcus Rashford has been tired for eight weeks now. Matic is constantly being overrun in midfield. The team was pushed to their limit and now that they can’t run as hard so their shoddy defense is being exposed.
That may be the fault of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but at the same time what was he supposed to do? Not only did he inherit a team of out of shape players, but he can only use the players he has. The team that he inherited was terribly unbalanced, a consequence of the different transfer policies of different managers and the lack of football structure within the hierarchy of the club.
There’s other factors at play here. After United’s thrilling win at the Parc des Princes in Paris, the stats community were quick to point out that since Ole took over, United were vastly out-performing their xG. Regression to the mean was coming.
That wasn’t something United fans wanted to hear. They had just done the unthinkable and reversed a 2-0 home defeat to PSG with their B-team. With Ole at the wheel, anything was possible.
Almost on cue, that regression to the mean came, and it came hard. United went to the Emirates that Saturday and played Arsenal off the pitch, but lost 2-0. In the first leg against Barcelona, United were arguably the better side for most of the game. Yet they turned that into zero shots on target and a 1-0 loss. Regression to the mean.
That’s what makes both statements true. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ran his team into the ground. They were playing great but he worked them so hard that it was unsustainable by the final months of the season and eventually it collapsed.
When Solskjaer took over, he defied stats and got United into a race they never should have gotten near. But when you defy stats, regression almost always comes. And eventually for United it did.
They are going through the run-in completely out of energy and crawling towards the finish line. If you want to blame Ole for that, go ahead. But the fact that he was dealt a hand that was sixth best in the league and is now performing like the sixth best team in the league, blaming that on him is a stretch.
[Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images]