Jose Mourinho is famed for his studious dissection of rival teams ahead of games, often shaping or adapting his own tactics and team selections to counter any particular threats they may pose. It’s an approach that brought silverware at every club he has managed since FC Porto, but hardly one that was ever going to endear him to United fans, who craved cavalier attacking football.
Ultimately, Mourinho lost both the support of the players and the fans at Man Utd, who had seemingly lost their playing identity, as the third season syndrome reared its ugly head at yet another club for the Portuguese coach. However, with precisely the same group of players Mourinho had suggested weren’t capable of anything better, Solskjaer has restored the adventurous “United Way” of attacking and the players have flourished. The Red Devils are once again an in-form team that people are confidently backing to win games regularly, with attractive football that almost always seems to guarantee goals.
Given that many top-flight matches these days can be decided by the finest of margins, the devil is very often in the details. Ahead of matches, real pro gamblers will delve deeply through statistics to help them predict the outcome of today’s Premier League fixtures. Regular punters such as ourselves can look to take advantage of that knowledge, with startups such as betconnect allowing us to see the selections of the pros and make the most of their knowledge. Of course, we can choose to take that knowledge and follow it or do the contrary, going with our own instincts instead.
Just like those betting on games, there are also many managers who put great faith in crunching numbers or analysing statistical data, focusing on every minor detail they can use to their advantage, thanks to the use of highly professional scouting applications available these days. Mourinho also pored through hours of match footage, such was his way of preparing for games, although it’s clear that he still lost sight of strengths in his own team, which might have warranted more detailed focus.
While it’s clear that Mourinho put great emphasis on data, statistic and analysis surrounding opponents, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone back to basics. Whilst the Norwegian is undoubtedly conscious of the challenges any rival team will present, his primary focus instead has been on the individual and collective strengths of his own players, what they can bring to the football pitch and how they can put themselves in charge of matches.
Despite what the numbers and statistics say, in the end, football is still a sport involving humans, and each player is unique. Solskjaer has paid great attention to the personal preferences and individual attributes of his players, to bring out the best performances and using them in roles they’re more comfortable with. It certainly helps that he always seems to do everything with a smile on his face, putting a positive glow around what he says and does, rather than the constant scowl adorning Mourinho’s face towards the end of his tenure.
The winning streak United have enjoyed under Solskjaer has brought much praise, particularly following the Premier League victory away at Tottenham Hotspur, then the emphatic FA Cup triumph at the Emirates against Arsenal. In truth, there’s little genius to the changes he’s made. Solskjaer has carefully observed the strengths of his players in training and matches, then sought to enhance all the positive elements each of them brings to the table. The difference in the results produced couldn’t be any more pronounced.
Many were surprised to see Romelu Lukaku lining up on the right flank for United against Arsenal, but it’s a role he performed exceptionally with Belgium during the World Cup in Russia. The recent training camp in Dubai presented Solskjaer with an opportunity to try the same role with his “other” Red Devils colleagues. Mourinho was only ever content to utilise the towering forward as a target man, yet his power and pace affords so many more options.
Getting the best out of Lukaku is just one example of the positive attacking changes Solskjaer has been implementing. Jesse Lingard has been deployed as a false-nine, affording him more licence to roam, create, and make penetrating runs from deep. Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial have been urged to stay out wide, making the most of their talents for hitting the byline or making diagonal runs towards goal. Marcus Rashford is enjoyed fine scoring form, thanks to hitting spaces more often to receive the ball.
Paul Pogba has excelled with more freedom to influence play, Ander Herrera has proven he’s a quality box-to-box midfielder, while at the back, full-backs are urged to support going forward and defenders seem more comfortable with their instructions. Victor Lindelöf is a fine example, now playing in his preferred right-sided centre-back role. Phil Jones has enjoyed improved performances, while the same should also come from Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling, as Solskjaer rotates his squad.
Essentially, what Solskjaer has done is so simple that it’s an application of practical common sense, rather than a novel idea. Tactically, he is very astute, but the key to United’s improvement has been in the performance of the players, which the former super-sub is the first to admit. That’s because they’ve responded well to playing in their preferred roles, or those they’re best suited to, with Solskjaer building his tactics around the players, rather than the reverse, which is ultimately where Mourinho came unstuck.