Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces tactical dilemma against Liverpool after Atalanta win

It would be easy to get swept up in the thrilling comeback victory over Atalanta but United remain a flawed team and now face a major challenge if they are to end their winless streak in the league

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 21 October 2021 13:11 BST
<p>Ole Gunnar Solskjaer congratulates Cristiano Ronaldo on his late winner </p>

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer congratulates Cristiano Ronaldo on his late winner

Amid the euphoric pride of victory, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appealed to the uniquely predictable. “It’s just in the DNA of this club,” the Manchester United manager beamed after the 3-2 win over Atalanta.

Far more relevant than what is ingrained in this club, however, is what is ingrained in this team. United have deep structural problems that are going to keep bringing admittedly entertaining, erratic matches and constantly create the need for such comebacks.

It can be difficult not to get swept away with the emotions of such victories, of course. You only had to look at the beaming faces of the fans leaving Old Trafford. Yet this is also one of the challenges for Solskjaer, especially ahead of a game as emotionally freighted as Sunday when Liverpool visit.

There must be the temptation to try and build on the “momentum” of another last-minute winner, to go with it and go at Liverpool. United’s personnel similarly means the team almost picks itself in terms of set-up. It is difficult for Solskjaer to do much other than a 4-2-3-1. Any other midfield would be too porous. Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo must play, and both have pretty fixed positions.

Yet this is one game where it feels like Solskjaer simply must be more calculated.

The truth is that if United play this formation again, it will just be setting up Liverpool for victory. It doesn’t necessarily mean Jurgen Klopp’s side will be certain to win, of course. Football can be a funny game, as so many United matches make emphatically clear. But it would be just to play into their feet.

This United setup simply can’t handle wing-backs. The formation does not seem to allow the cover for it.

The wide forwards have too much to do to make up for Cristiano Ronaldo’s inability to press, and the central midfielders can’t be drawn across for fear of being too exposed in the centre. It just leaves so much space for wing-backs to run into.

And no wing-backs run like Liverpool’s. They have actually been a key side in the ongoing evolution of the position, such is the manner Andy Robertson and particularly Trent Alexander-Arnold have served as playmakers. They are crucial to the structure of the team.

Klopp and his analysis team will surely be looking at myriad ways they can hurt United in those areas. This is why Solskjaer maybe has to make a calculation of his own. He has to change up the team.

It would seem to invite disaster to not play three in midfield, and really congest that area. United almost have to cede the initiative, in the way that has brought some of Solskjaer’s biggest results at this club. It is why this may be one of Solskjaer’s bigger decisions.

United players celebrate their late winner against Atalanta

For all the euphoria around Wednesday’s win, no one came away from Old Trafford thinking this was any kind of a turning point. There remains the danger the season could tailspin. If United don't win on Sunday, it’s four games without victory in the Premier League.

All the emotion from this win over Atalanta would evaporate, as happened after the victory over Villarreal. Solskjaer has to prevent that. He has a calculation to make.

Of course, so much of this comes down to a much simpler equation. Solskjaer is not a top-class coach. He has done a decent job at United, but he is not on the level of any of his peers at the rest of the “big four”.

There is the possibility that it may work out or he may enjoy just enough luck for a league or Champions League in one given season, but that is still dependent on a major show of faith. That is what this is.

It sometimes feels this is danced around, amid the interminable discussions surrounding the club and so many back-and-forths of results like Wednesday. United have structural issues because the manager is not capable of putting in the kind of tactical structure Klopp is.

If the club had a better manager, they would. It’s so simple – but the source of so many complications.

As it is, Solskjaer would be better served going back to basics this weekend. It feels logical to go to a low block and a three-man midfield, with the attackers playing on the counter. Anything else and it will be offering up space to Liverpool. Whether they exploit it is another matter.

We have seen these games before. United have got results against all reason before, but then the logic there is actually pretty simple, too.

They have some exceptional players and one of the best squads in the world. That will keep you at a certain level.

That isn’t really down to DNA. It’s down to hard finance. It’s an equation. Solskjaer now needs to make a hard decision.

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