Ken Early: Marrying style and substance still a conundrum for Solskjaer
United fans will lose patience with a team that embraces a counter-attacking strategy
Liverpool players appeal to referee Martin Atkinson after he allows the opening goal for Manchester United despite a disputed challenge on Liverpool’s striker Divock Origi in the build up. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/ Getty
Among the messages Woodward wanted to get out was that United were determined to stand by their manager, who has come under pressure after a bad end to last season and a slow start to this one.
It was unmistakably a vote of confidence, and the rules of narrative dictated that Solskjaer’s team should now lose and immediately put Woodward’s faith to the test.
Instead they stopped Liverpool equalling Manchester City’s record winning run in the Premier League, with a 1-1 draw that was probably their best result since the Champions League victory over PSG in Paris seven months ago.
Jurgen Klopp’s team had benefited from a big VAR decision earlier this season at Stamford Bridge, when a Cesar Azpilicueta equaliser for Chelsea was ruled out for a fractional offside by Mason Mount far back in the build-up. On that occasion Liverpool made it 2-0 almost immediately and Frank Lampard admitted that his team had been “deflated” by the double-whammy.
Here it was Liverpool on the receiving end of a similar double setback as the video referees decided not to penalise Victor Lindelof’s foul on Divock Origi in the build-up to Marcus Rashford’s goal, and then a few minutes later ruled out Sadio Mane’s equaliser for handball.
These incidents together demonstrate that while Premier League VAR has an absolutist policy on handballs and offsides, fouls are pretty much left to the discretion of the referee.
Victor Lindelof’s tackle on Origi was a foul – he kicked him in the leg without getting anywhere near the ball. But it wasn’t much of a foul, and so the referee Martin Atkinson waved play on – “it’s a man’s game”, in the phrase Solskjaer used afterwards – not realising that a few seconds later the ball would be in the net and what seemed an uncontroversial decision at the time had suddenly become a controversial one.
At which point – what should happen? It appears the video referees are unwilling to overrule the referee’s judgment on fouls, unless he ‘misses’ them – as had happened on Saturday in the match between Burnley and Leicester, when VAR told referee Jon Moss to disallow a late equaliser for Burnley because he hadn’t noticed a trip on Jonny Evans by the goalscorer Chris Wood.
The difference in the Origi case was that Atkinson had seen the ‘foul’ but decided to turn a blind eye.
The days of this ancient refereeing practice are surely numbered now that all plays leading to goals can be re-examined to check for infringements. If video referees are unwilling to overrule the referee’s subjective decisions, perhaps they should ask him to come to the sideline and watch the replay so he has the opportunity to overrule himself. The alternative is that the integrity of the system is brought into question.
Liverpool controlled the second half and Adam Lallana’s late equaliser was deserved. United finished with 32 per cent possession, their second-lowest total in home Premier League matches since records began in 2003.
Their lowest-ever home possession was also against Klopp’s Liverpool, in March 2018, a match that finished 2-1 to United, with two goals by yesterday’s goalscorer Marcus Rashford. This is the type of game where Rashford is most dangerous.
Klopp might have been expected to criticise Atkinson, who had given 14 fouls against his team and only six against United, not to mention his part in the goal. Instead he seemed more annoyed by United’s tactics.
“They were purely there today to defend,” he said. “One team has only to defend and the other team has to make the game. When United play Liverpool, usually you’d think both teams would play like this, would try. With the quality they have, the way they set up is really difficult.
“It doesn’t frustrate me. I’m not the person who should be concerned about this style. It’s just a fact that when we come here, they just defend. It’s okay, no criticism, it’s just a fact.”
One supposes the person who ‘should be concerned about this style’ is Ed Woodward, and his round of interviews during the week had included some comments on the style Solskjaer intends to bring to United. According to Woodward, the Norwegian wanted “a more dynamic style of football, one pass through the middle not multiple passes, ball possession but counter-attack at pace”.
Presumably Solskjaer’s actual template is a little more detailed, but it’s not easy to imagine “one pass through the middle” football bringing the good times back at Manchester United.
Leicester City won the league in 2016 playing that way, but they were a team that spent most of the match defending against opponents who had more of the ball. They averaged 42 per cent possession that year, ranking them 18th out of 20 teams in the league. A team like that, with a solid defence and a fast player like Jamie Vardy in attack, can play “one pass through the middle” football because there will be space in the other team’s depopulated half for the striker to run onto that pass.
With David de Gea and Harry Maguire at the back, and Rashford and Daniel James in attack, Manchester United certainly have the players to play that way. But it’s hard to see it working in the long run, because to adapt one of Solskjaer’s regular phrases, “they are Manchester United”.
Most of their matches are not going to be against teams like Liverpool. Most weeks they play teams who are defending deep, and are willing to concede possession and play on the counter-attack themselves.
If Solskjaer tries to turn United into a team that has less of the ball, in order to pull the opposition forward and create that space in behind for his fast attackers, the fans will quickly lose patience with a side that looks like it is being dominated – unless they win every game.
And that’s unlikely, because two teams playing counter-attacking football is a recipe for a lot of low-scoring draws. Jose Mourinho has already tried this at United and look how it went for him.
It was curious to hear Woodward talking about how Solskjaer was taking things in a fresh new direction, when the football style he was describing sounded quite similar to Mourinho’s, notwithstanding that it’s supposed to be ‘more dynamic’, whatever that means.
Woodward also spoke of a ‘cultural reboot’ and maybe this is the more significant change. Solskjaer has some sense of the club as something larger than himself, and doesn’t cause as much trouble as Jose when things go wrong.
Yet while this new culture of dignity must make life easier for Woodward, it’s not yet clear how it’s going to turn Manchester United back into a title-winning force.