Have Man Utd become too reliant on Bruno Fernandes?
It still seems almost implausible that signing just one player could so dramatically change a club’s fortunes.
That is a cause for celebration, but perhaps also mild alarm.
The Portugalmidfielder has put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer within touching distance of a top-four finish, and despite United'sFA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea, the Red Devils look ready to challenge for the Premier League title in 2020-21.
If that was to happen, Solskjaer will buck the trend of the last few years of English football.
What unites the last three coaches to have won the Premier League – Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, and Jurgen Klopp – is micro-management. Their attention to detail goes considerably deeper than traditional tacticians, with the minutiae of each individual move planned and planned again on the training field.
What looks like improvisation is actually ruthlessly regimented. Attacks are calibrated to precise measurements.
When the collective is so strong, adding or subtracting one individual will notmake too much difference. And so, counter-intuitively, Fernandes’ impact at Old Trafford confirms what wasalready thought of Solskjaer’s tactics, despite changing the end result for the better.
Solskjaer allows his players to improvise, expecting partnerships to form naturally,while he emphasises relatively basic principles such as pace and power. By doing so, he cedes control.
Unlike the Liverpool and ManchesterCity teams of the past two years,United are vulnerable to wilder oscillations of form, to the changeable winds of football’s psychological side, and to the impactof individual personalities. For example, put an assertive thinker in central midfield and it will rub off on the rest of the team.
This helps explain the remarkable short-term tactical improvements that have developed since the Premier League'srestart.
That Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are in sync reflects their confidence together, not a sudden change in how Solskjaer takes first-team training.
That Nemanja Matic is flitting through midfield and playing superb line-breaking passes into his team-mates reflects a personal reawakening, not anything new in the coaching set-up.
That Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw occasionally pop up in central midfield as inverted full-backs reflects their individual problem solving and how tactical trends filter through football, not a change in the manager’s strategy, for it has been too sporadic and stilted to mean that.
That does not necessarily mean United’s improvements are temporary, but to reassess Solskjaer and credit the changes he has made is to reassess quite how important tactics have become to modern Premier League football.
Solskjaer’s main strengths are man-management and player development. Several of United’s key players have improved substantially under the Norwegian, most likely thanks to his relentlessly positive attitude towards them and a focus on coaching individuals over collective shape.
Rashford,Martial, Shaw, Fred and Victor Lindelofhave fine-tuned their game, eradicating weaknesses and doubling down on their core strengths.
Similarly, the young players at United have been treated well, Solskjaer’s arm-around-the-shoulder approach and gradual introduction is providing academy graduates with a clear pathway to the first-team setup.
Tactically, Solskjaer realised early on how to win the ‘Big Six’ clashes, sitting deep to absorb pressure and relying on a simple counterattacking strategy to negate the likes of Man City and Liverpool.
It was struggling to break down the smaller clubs – to work out how to stretch a defensive shell out of shape – that betrayed his inability to work on the finer details of attacking patterns. Now that Fernandes and Paul Pogba are in the side, though, that seems less important than it once did.
The only question for United fans is whether a ‘big picture’ approach to tactics is enough to win at least 93 points, the title winner’s tally in each of the last four years.
The average total across Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13 title-winning years is 84.7 points. Solskjaer may be modelling himself on an era that no longer exists, and in this period of near-perfection at the top there is no room for off days - which inevitably occur when the likes of Pogba, Fernandes, Rashford, and Martial are given genuine creative freedom.
The 2-2 draw with Southampton just over a week ago hinted at this problem. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s complex tactical construction is near level of Klopp and Guardiola, and it showed at Old Trafford as the Saints recorded a higher xG than their hosts and tactically outwitted them for long periods.
The prevalence of these sorts of matches will only increase once opponents work out how to negate the instinctive rhythms of United’s football since the restart, when Pogba and Fernandes first started playing together.
The alternative read is that if one player, Fernandes, can so completely reshape the team’s fortunes, then new additions this summer will continue an upward trajectory.
Jadon Sancho is the kind of Galactico signing that would add points to United’s season through personal improvisations alone, as would buying Jack Grealish, a more robust centre-back partner for Harry Maguire, and a less error-prone goalkeeper.
For now, the tactical conundrums that lie ahead for United can wait. Solskjaer has done more than enough in 2020 to prove the doubters wrong and show he deserves to be in the role.
Source : goal.com
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