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slP MzAmA wF9 frO gwl5P cio How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always gets Manchester United’s gameplan spot on when under big pressure – Man Utd
November 26, 2021

Man Utd

News

How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always gets Manchester United’s gameplan spot on when under big pressure

7 min read

You’d expect Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to be at his best when the chips are down.

After all, this was the striker who specialised in the stoppage-time smash and grab during an illustrious playing career at Old Trafford.

Now as Manchester United‘s manager, Solskjaer seems to thrive when the odds are stacked against him and his team.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his gameplan absolutely spot on as Man United beat PSG again

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his gameplan absolutely spot on as Man United beat PSG again

Marcus Rashford's late strike earned a memorable 2-1 win in their Champions League opener

Marcus Rashford’s late strike earned a memorable 2-1 win in their Champions League opener

Of course, Solskjaer was always at his best as a player when the odds were stacked against Man United. Pictured is his stoppage time winner in the 1999 Champions League final

Of course, Solskjaer was always at his best as a player when the odds were stacked against Man United. Pictured is his stoppage time winner in the 1999 Champions League final

When results take a downward turn, when the pressure mounts again, when the name Mauricio Pochettino is whispered, Solskjaer always seems to get it right.

In the biggest games, when United assume the unfamiliar role of underdogs, they somehow seem to succeed following the Norwegian’s gameplan.

Tuesday night’s Champions League win away to Paris Saint-Germain was just the latest example.

United’s start to the season has been ropey to say the least with that 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Tottenham supposedly the beginning of the end for a manager frequently accused of being out of his depth.

The deserved 4-1 win at Newcastle on Saturday night was surely a temporary reprieve with United’s myriad deficiencies certain to be exposed by Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Co.

United's midfielders Fred and Scott McTominay gang up on Neymar during United's victory

United’s midfielders Fred and Scott McTominay gang up on Neymar during United’s victory

Alex Telles was thrown in at the deep end for his United debut but didn't put a foot wrong

Alex Telles was thrown in at the deep end for his United debut but didn’t put a foot wrong

Aaron Wan-Bissaka makes the perfect tackle to deny Kylian Mbappe at the Parc des Princes

Aaron Wan-Bissaka makes the perfect tackle to deny Kylian Mbappe at the Parc des Princes

Not a bit of it. Every decision Solskjaer made, whether tactically or in terms of personnel, was absolutely spot on.

Once again United thrived as the underdogs and recorded a famous European win thanks to Marcus Rashford’s late strike.

Firstly, there was a switch in formation to the three central defenders and two wing-backs set-up Solskjaer likes to reserve for the most demanding games.

It typically appears when United face Chelsea or Manchester City because it adds extra security at the back but also offers a counter-attacking spring which suits United’s style.

Secondly, there was the choice of personnel, which was bold. 

Luke Shaw part of the three at the back, Axel Tuanzebe picked for the first time this season in the biggest game of his young career, captain Harry Maguire left at home and Alex Telles chucked in for a punishing debut at left wing-back.

In midfield, Solskjaer ignored all the noise around Paul Pogba to once again leave him on the bench in favour of workhorses Fred and Scott McTominay.

Mbappe is left on his backside by Axel Tuanzebe, who could solve United's centre-back woes

Mbappe is left on his backside by Axel Tuanzebe, who could solve United’s centre-back woes 

Bruno Fernandes (right) gave United the lead from the penalty spot - at the second attempt

Bruno Fernandes (right) gave United the lead from the penalty spot – at the second attempt

On the face of it, you looked at that line-up and really feared for United. But every selection Solskjaer made was the right one.

Fred and McTominay’s industry provided the foundation for United’s win, Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the other side were excellent. Tuanzebe was composed, offering a good solution to United’s issues at centre back going forward.

Solskjaer could have dumped error-prone David de Gea at the start of the season in favour of the ambitious Dean Henderson. The stats supported the case for change.

But actually Henderson’s return has placed just enough pressure on De Gea to restore his full concentration. He was more than able on the occasions PSG did manage to punch through.

Thirdly, the in-game decisions. When Anthony Martial headed into his own net for 1-1, Solskjaer could easily have introduced defensive-minded players from the bench and shut up shop. After all, nobody would have criticised a draw at the Parc des Princes.

David de Gea seems to have improved his game this season since Dean Henderson's return

David de Gea seems to have improved his game this season since Dean Henderson’s return

Solskjaer again left Paul Pogba on the bench but he impressed once he came on

Solskjaer again left Paul Pogba on the bench but he impressed once he came on

Man United fixtures 

Premier League unless stated 

Saturday Chelsea (H)

October 28 RB Leipzig (H)

Champions League group stage

November 1 Arsenal (H)

November 4 Istanbul Basaksehir (A)

Champions League group stage

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Instead he introduced Pogba for Telles and the Frenchman played his 23 minutes as though he had plenty to prove. His performance was capped with the assist for Rashford’s winner.

Fourthly, Solskjaer more often than not ensures his United team have the perfect mentality for the biggest games.

It might not be the United tradition he knew from his playing days but the underdog role suits them at the moment.

That kind of attitude ensures everyone puts in the hard yards, stays focused on their respective roles, embraces a counter-attacking game which is highly effective and plays with the knowledge that all of this will ultimately bring rewards, as on Tuesday night.

It’s far from the first time that Solskjaer has got it right under intense pressure. There are two examples from last season alone.

Last December, United were ninth in the table after 14 matches having won as many games as they’d lost in the league.

There was speculation Solskjaer would be sacked if they lost back-to-back games against Tottenham and Manchester City.

It didn’t help that Jose Mourinho had just come in as Spurs manager but Solskjaer placed trust in his grafters, with Fred and McTominay in midfield, and his speedsters, with Rashford and Mason Greenwood up top.

The classic Sir Alex Ferguson siege mentality was in play as United came at Tottenham with aggression and purpose, outworked them and ultimately won 2-1. Solskjaer cheekily patted Mourinho on the head at the final whistle.

Solskjaer gives Jose Mourinho a cheeky pat on the head after United's win over Spurs in 2019

Solskjaer gives Jose Mourinho a cheeky pat on the head after United’s win over Spurs in 2019

Solskjaer was under intense pressure last December but United responded by beating Spurs

Solskjaer was under intense pressure last December but United responded by beating Spurs

A few days later, United went to the Etihad and blew City away on the counter-attack in the first half-an-hour, surging into a two-goal lead.

After that, United dropped back with six defensive players, soaked up everything Pep Guardiola’s side could throw at them and won 2-1. It was an emphatic response to Solskjaer’s critics.

Not that it took too long for Solskjaer to come under scrutiny again. A 2-0 home defeat by Burnley in late January was, at that time, the lowest point of his time in charge.

But once again, Solskjaer adjusted things and within a few weeks they’d won again at the Etihad, albeit in losing the Carabao Cup semi-final on aggregate, beaten Chelsea 2-0 in the league and then outplayed City 2-0 at Old Trafford just before lockdown.

Again in the big games, Solskjaer adopted the 3-4-1-2 set-up, dropping Shaw into the back three, deploying energetic wing backs and using two hard-working defensive midfielders. Again, United had joy on the counter.

Harry Maguire and Daniel James celebrate United's victory away to Man City last December

Harry Maguire and Daniel James celebrate United’s victory away to Man City last December

Solskjaer salutes the United fans at the Etihad after a tactical masterclass last season

Solskjaer salutes the United fans at the Etihad after a tactical masterclass last season

Indeed, following the Burnley defeat, United embarked on an unbeaten run of 19 matches in all competitions either side of lockdown.

So Solskjaer again had the gameplan to recover and get United back on track at a time when many feared he would be fired. They came out swinging, claimed the necessary results and their luck turned.

Which takes us back to Solskjaer’s first season and another memorable night in Paris. PSG’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford in the first leg was the first defeat the Norwegian had suffered as interim manager.

It would have been easy to write off the return leg as a lost cause. When you look at United’s line-up now, even more so.

Eric Bailly started at right back, Chris Smalling partnered Victor Lindelof in central defence. Ashley Young played on the right side of midfield with Andreas Pereira on the left, either side of Fred and McTominay.

Romelu Lukaku rounds Gianluigi Buffon to score against PSG in United's famous win last year

Romelu Lukaku rounds Gianluigi Buffon to score against PSG in United’s famous win last year

Rashford's stoppage time penalty in the March 2019 clash took United through on away goals

Rashford’s stoppage time penalty in the March 2019 clash took United through on away goals

Solskjaer (right), soon to be appointed United manager on a permanent basis, celebrates with Eric Cantona (left) and Sir Alex Ferguson after the 2019 win over PSG

Solskjaer (right), soon to be appointed United manager on a permanent basis, celebrates with Eric Cantona (left) and Sir Alex Ferguson after the 2019 win over PSG

The subs bench was effectively a load of kids and things got worse when Bailly suffered a first-half injury.

And yet, somehow, United prevailed 3-1 in the most dramatic of circumstances thanks to Rashford’s 94th-minute penalty.

Solskjaer went for an old-fashioned 4-4-2 but the combination of Romelu Lukaku’s brute force and Rashford’s electric pace up front did the trick. He was rewarded with the job on a permanent basis, though admittedly their form then collapsed. 

It’s often said that United are never more than two defeats away from a crisis. Their fixture list remains daunting, with Chelsea, RB Leipzig and Arsenal up next.

But another memorable night in Paris has highlighted once again that their manager usually gets it right on the big occasion and especially when the burden on his own shoulders is high.

In terms of tactics, team selection, gameplan and mentality, Solskjaer continues to get it absolutely right when it matters.

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