Despite being miles behind their rivals tactically, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are the perfect incapsulation of how the game has changed in 2020-21
As fans prepare for the return of Premier League action amid a new national lockdown in England, perhaps it is time to admit something a bit uncomfortable about this unique campaign.
No teams are actually good, and none of it really makes sense.
It seems increasingly likely that fans will not be back in stadiums before the curtain comes down on the season in May, but things might be entirely back to normal in time for the beginning of 2021-22 – set to start in the usual August time slot and, potentially, with close to capacity crowds.
That suggests a rather neat summer divide for football, which in turn will only serve to heighten the sense of dissonance between the two campaigns, isolating 2020-21 as a weird, other-worldly, heavily-asterisked Premier League season.
It will feel like a distant nightmare sooner than you think. And, looking back on it from the safety and comfort of post-pandemic football, we will probably agree that it was – for the most part – surreal nonsense masquerading as the real thing.
Currently we are too deeply embedded in the present to get that perspective, so instead we trudge on with the pretence, indulging in the usual metrics of punditry and opinion.
We should not blame ourselves for that: the self-hypnosis of believing that the Premier League is governed by logic and reason is a necessary delusion. Football has been a blessed relief from the pandemic; we crave normality and will seek it out wherever we can, however delusional.
Hence our rather bonkers ability to change perspectives on clubs as they bounce up and down the table. It is all a part of the circus, the escapism, of desperately wanting this absurd ‘Covid season’ to be like any other.
Take Manchester United, for example. In recent weeks the Red Devils have been rubber-stamped as a “Good Team”, even though less than two months ago they most definitely came under the bracket of being “In Crisis”.
With victories over Burnley and Liverpool in the next week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could find themselves six points clear of the Anfield outfit having played the same number of games as Jurgen Klopp’s defending champions and current Premier League leaders.
On that basis they surely must be good, right?
But it does not take much digging to see that United are exactly the same side as they were a month or even a year ago, with the same flaws and limitations; the same lack of tactical detail and the same reliance on individual quality.
The difference is, in this weird campaign when everyone is struggling, Solskjaer’s tactical shortcomings are no longer significant. His team have not improved by much; it is just that others have come down to their level.
Covid-19 has seen the Premier League tactical landscape regress by about five years – essentially back to the time before Leicester City’s title win in 2016.
As Claudio Ranieri’s triumph left stunned elite clubs scrambling to modernise, England caught up with mainland Europe’s most important contemporary features: in-depth positional coaching both on and off the ball.
Off it, this amounts to a more textured and varied use of pressing, which became increasingly choreographed and used as a mechanism of attack, while on the ball this meant the introduction of ‘automatisms’: set moves drilled in training until they become instinctive on match day, allowing teams to think and act several steps ahead of play.
The big teams turned to the best young coaches in the game, and Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, and Pep Guardiola introduced the country to the microscopic details; to structured attacks built in carefully demarcated zones, and to structured pressing built in phases and traps.
The pandemic has pretty much thrown all of this out of the window. A truncated pre-season and constant churn of midweek matches has limited time on the training ground, severely impacting the ability of Klopp or Guardiola to coach in microscopic detail, while fatigue – both physical and mental – has dramatically reduced pressing intensity.
Unsurprisingly, tactics have disintegrated back to their pre-2016 level. Exhausted players are meandering through matches, focusing almost entirely on recovery between games. They lack detailed instruction from the dugout and are unable to fully enact game-plans, creating a zombie-like season of upsets and disjointed football; of lurches between bizarre high-scoring games and slews of 0-0s.
With the norms subverted, the best-placed manager to succeed is the one who comes from that tactically regressive time.
Step forward Solskjaer, an excellent man-manager and motivator whose Sir Alex Ferguson-inspired talk of the ‘United Way’ and vague notions of playing exciting, attacking football suddenly appeal perfectly to the moment.
Over the last two years the Norwegian has consistently displayed a lack of tactical acumen, instead relying on the improvisations of key individuals. This helps explain why it remains difficult to work out what Solskjaer is actually trying to do, and why it is so hard to summarise United’s playing style in a few sentences.
An individualistic team is an emotional and unreliable one, because when confidence drops there is no foundation – no ‘automatisms’, no muscle memory – to fall back on, leading to bursts of brilliant form and sudden collapses.
It would be naive to assume United will not suffer another mini-crisis this season – we ought to be wise to Solskjaer’s false dawns by now – but it would be just as naive to assume that this would prevent them from mounting a serious title challenge.
In a pre-modern tactical season, you want a pre-modern manager. To put it another way, United’s players are given complete creative freedom, allowing them to problem solve this unique year, whereas Manchester City and Liverpool are finding their tactical purity clashing brutally with the pandemic-induced chaos.
But we should not overstate Solskjaer’s case. This season has suited him, and yet United’s league position is still more to do with the failures of others than their own success.
The club’s current points return puts them on course for 78 points in 2020-21, significantly more than last year’s 66 but three fewer than the tally achieved by Jose Mourinho in 2017-18.
Mourinho’s total collapse the following season has somehow been allowed to recalibrate what constitutes success at United.
It should not, because although Solskjaer technically inherited a team in mid-table in reality he took charge of a squad that just six months earlier had collected 81 points and finished second. That was the real level of the team, and the Norwegian’s achievements ought to be judged against that foundation.
Two years and £275 million worth of new signings later, United are still not back to that level. And so we are left with a paradox befitting the absurdity of the moment: Solskjaer is both masterminding a title challenge and under-achieving; is both not good enough for the club and the perfect manager to navigate the 2020-21 Premier League campaign.
When we look back on the Covid-era in years to come, we will see this Premier League season for what it really is: absolute nonsense, an anomaly that bears almost no resemblance to what came before or after.
No club encapsulates this better than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s oxymoronic Manchester United.
They could win the league.
And they are not very good.