Could the 3-5-2 formation switch be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ‘Antonio Conte moment’ at Manchester United?

Jack Kitson by Jack Kitson / 21 October 2019, 13:36

Manchester United’s winless run was extended to four top-flight games and they now find themselves down in 13th, however the 1-1 draw against leaders Liverpool is arguably the most important Premier League result of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure to date.

This is not to knock the 1-0 win away to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, the 4-0 victory at home to Chelsea, the 1-0 triumph over Leicester City, or even the goalless draw against Klopp’s men back in February.

But given the current circumstances, it was an admirable and timely result.

Solskjaer headed into the match as the favourite for the sack, Man Utd had only won one of their last seven games, and had suffered their worst ever start to a Premier League season.

In stark contrast, European champions Liverpool were enjoying a 17 game-winning run, had not suffered a defeat since their opening game of 2019, and they were just one victory away from both tying the all-time win record and equalling the best ever start to a Premier League season after nine games.

In the end, Solskjaer came within five minutes of becoming the first Premier League manager to beat Klopp in nearly 10 months.

While he’s deservedly come in for criticism at various points this season, like any manager it’s only fair to applaud him when he gets things right. Which he did on Sunday. So without further ado here’s a look at the positives…

Man with a plan

Man Utd have looked woeful at times this season. There’s no arguing with that. But on Sunday Solskjaer devised and directed an effective game plan which very nearly bamboozled one of best bosses in the world.

Gone was his customary 4-2-3-1 formation, and in came 3-5-2.

For the first time in a while United looked like a solid cohesive unit, frustrating their fierce rivals who were forced into making clumsy passes and uncharacteristically poor errors of judgement.

The system, for the most part, nullified the rip-roaring duo of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and restricted the Reds' front-three to half-chances.

Whereas United had bite in attack with Marcus Rashford and Daniel James a threat through their pace and energy. Summer signing Harry Maguire performed creditably in a familiar system he's been employed at in international level, Scott McTominay put in a showing of grit and determination, while Andreas Pereira also impressed in the No.10 position.

However, it’s Solskjaer who deserves the plaudits for his tactical nous.

“It can develop into something, because we’ve got players to play three at the back, and allows more width in the team,” he revealed at the game.

“Of course it’s a risk against their front three, but it’s a risk you have to take. We did it to create chances ourselves.”

The formation change has inevitably drawn parallels with the start of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea tenure, when the Italian switched to a 3-5-2 formation in October 2016.

It proved to be a masterstroke as the Blues won 13 straight league games en-route to winning the title with a then-record 30 triumphs.

Now, we are by no means suggesting that Solskjaer’s side will go on and win the league - they are already 15 points adrift of table-toppers Liverpool - but it could well prove to be the ‘Eureka Moment’ in the Norwegian's managerial career.

Top-6 Record

Solskjaer has faced the other five members of the 'traditional top-6’ on eight occasions in the league.

Over the past 10 months he has overseen a 4-0 win over Frank Lampard, beaten Pochettino in his own patch, frustrated Jurgen Klopp not once but twice, and carved out other draws against Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri.

In fact, the only defeats have been to Emery, and a certain Pep Guardiola.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that Solskjaer has accumulated more Premier League points (50) from his first 30 matches at Man Utd, than Klopp recorded at Liverpool (48). It's also only three fewer than Pochettino (53) at Spurs.

Those two haven’t done too badly since...

Encouragement for the future

Man Utd didn’t win the game but both their performance and the point gained does give the club a foundation for the future ahead of a favourable run of fixtures against the three promoted sides, Bournemouth and Brighton.

We’ve spoken about Solskjaer’s record against the top-6, but he now needs to find a formula for the games United are expected to win.

He’s already suffered setbacks against the likes of Newcastle, Crystal Palace and West Ham this season, and it’s up to debate whether the system he used against Liverpool would be as effective in their upcoming games.

However, United now have an excellent opportunity to build on Sunday’s showing and start climbing their way back up the league ladder.

After all, the next few weeks could prove to be a pivotal period in his managerial career.

He has the support of - most of - the fans

Perhaps crucially, unlike his predecessor Jose Mourinho who was ejected from his hot-seat with only a handful of loyalists left in his corner, Solskjaer retains the support of the majority of fans.

He’s a club legend who may have come unstuck at times since his appointment was made permanent, but the fans are still very much on his side.

Instead, the criticism is ferociously fired in the direction of the Glazer family and Ed Woodward.

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