The Phoenix rises again and again and again. A loop that has seen Manchester United impress after multiple disappointments. The second half against Southampton envisaged the Manchester United of old. The one that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used to play in. Yet for all the glory, the scenes seem familiar. A couple of unconvincing losses, followed by some unconvincing wins, then the odd convincing win.
It seems that everyone is operating normally in this simulation. The loop restarts, sorrow is followed by hope, hope is followed by euphoria, then it all resets. Istanbul is followed by Manchester, Manchester is followed by Southampton, then it all resets. The only constant however is that United are yet to be identifiable.
It would be unfair to say that Solskjaer hadn’t found solutions in certain games. Using the wing backs to attract pressure from Liverpool’s full back worked, reacting to Mourinho’s second half changes last December worked, switching to a diamond against PSG to clog the central area and neutralize Neymar’s threat, worked.
Then on Sunday moving away from the diamond at half time to give United an edge, also worked. For all the positive pressing in the first fifteen minutes at St. Mary’s, United’s two chances in the first half originated from two Southampton mistakes. It wasn’t until the second half that United improved in attack.
The effect of the Edinson Cavani substitution couldn’t be more obvious, but the slight tweak to the shape from Solskjaer also had its effect. Starting with a diamond, Solskjaer tweaked the shape by dropping Fred deeper next to Nemanja Matic to defend the center of the pitch. As for Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek, they were free to roam in the line ahead. Complementing this was Marcus Rashford and Cavani’s positioning and movement. The striker duo moved regularly to the wide areas, pinning Southampton’s defensive line and thus allowing Fernandes and van de Beek space behind Southampton’s midfield from where they can make untracked runs into the box. At times it looked more like a 4–2–2–2 but the main concept behind it was to free Fernandes and van de Beek and allow them time on the ball.
Fernandes and van de Beek got more time on the ball, and unsurprisingly United improved. The tweak worked and a three goals comeback was the result. United won and celebrations followed.
Then they wake up and the loop resets. In an All You Need is Kill scenario, United might perform poorly against PSG on Wednesday. It would be surprising considering their second half performance against Southampton, but in the greater scheme of things, in the bigger loop, it’s just the start of a new cycle.
There might be multiple reasons behind this cycle of the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet the one looming in the dark, the intangible one, is that United appear to be lacking clear footballing principles. The solutions introduced by Solskjaer work when needed, but there is no base ideas for the other games.
The diamond might work against RB Leipzig, but it might not work against Arsenal. The counter attacking carnivals might work against teams who open up, but it might not work against a Chelsea side setting up to defend. Changes in shapes and tweaks through the games might work, but in abstract there isn’t an identifiable way of play to build on.
In simpler terms, Manchester United lack the main dish. That’s why they seem lost in normal games where you expect them to win. Istanbul Basaksehir away as an example. On the contrary, they might have a solution away to PSG or home to Liverpool. The dessert and the appetizers are ever-present but you don’t go to the restaurant for them.
The hectic season isn’t also giving Solskjaer time to implement any of his ideas. With back to back games, there’s barely time for recovery. However, Solskjaer has been there for a while. He has been there in a normal season when ideas could have been implemented. Attacking patterns could have been explained, tried out and mastered. Yet there aren’t any that seem visible to date.
The loop continues with talks about free high profile managers such Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri. Their names brought up at specific times in the loop, usually following a major loss.
During all of that, a high intensity soundtrack is playing in the background. There aren’t any visible clocks, no one knows when will the cycle reset.
The Phoenix rises again and again and again. A loop that has seen Manchester United impress after multiple disappointments….