Did Manchester United and Solskjær’s Semi-Final exits ever reflected a ‘Weak mentality’ or a ‘Bottler’s mentality’?
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Manchester United have reached 4 semi finals and every time they seemed to fall a bit short of taking that next step? Or did they?
Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed Manchester United’s permanent manager in March 2019. At the time, Manchester United were seen as the giants that have fallen so far away from grace. They were almost unrecognizable. Sure, there were highlights and a few comebacks (i.e. PSG away March 19) but their underlying numbers always reflected a team struggling to be consistent among the top 5, let alone top 4.
End of season 2018/2019, Solskjær claimed that Manchester United will need to undergo a complete rebuild. He said that the environment at the club needed changing and the fitness was on the floor. The commitment, desire and willingness of certain players to play for the club and give the required effort were questioned.
Manchester United sold 8 first team players — some were big names — bought 4 first team players (+1 loan) and promoted the rest from United’s academy in the 19/20 season.
“Solskjær openly admitted he was stunned at United’s fitness levels when he took over, with opponents regularly outrunning them in games.”
This already established how much Manchester United were behind the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, who at the time, were serial winning machines. It felt, at times, that they never lose games.
Semi Final One: Carabao Cup 2020
Fast forward to the first semi final United reached, and it’s a Manchester derby. Some fans were hopeful United can do a job on City because United had won at the Etihad — a month earlier. However, United were missing too many key players (i.e. Pogba, Maguire, Shaw, Martial, McTominay, etc.) to be able to even remotely mount a challenge to City. And so it was, United got ripped apart and lost 3–1 in the first leg. Solskjær was not even able to use the 3–5–2 formation that served him well vs. the big sides due lack of personnel.
Two weeks later, both teams met again and this time United got back a few players. This is how United lined up:
Solskjær reverted back to his 3–5–2 vs City which got him the win a month earlier and what do you know? United won the 2nd leg. Unfortunately, it was not enough to get them through the tie.
This tie was as straight forward as it gets, regarding who will eventually go through and who will not. One team is coming off winning the league back to back in the last 2 years, while the other is in the infancy of a project and just started building the foundation of their new house. The massive difference in quality, depth and experience was as evident as the sun in the sky from only the team sheets sent out — let alone on the pitch.
You can’t have a weak mentality or bottle something when it is a mismatch between you and your opponents — not in a good way for United.
Semi Final Two: FA Cup 2020
Manchester United came out of lockdown, in June 2020, flying with their new look of Pogba, Matić and Fernandes as a midfield three. It seemed like Solskjær have finally cracked it or so we thought? United were playing catch up due to what we said earlier about them building and injuries and all that jazz. Solskjær fielded the same XI in 5 consecutive games, which was the first time this happened since the inaugural season for the premier league in 1993.
This team started to fade and get leggy. The issue was when Solskjær rotated the obvious drop in quality from the bench was evident for every fan to see and the tight schedule didn’t help. Enter Chelsea and the FA Cup Semi final.
United had 48 hours less than Chelsea to rest as the fixtures were squeezed to finish the season as early as possible due to the pandemic and lockdown. Unlike United, Chelsea can rotate as such they didn’t look steam rolled by fixtures like United. What Solskjær did next can be seen in 2 ways?
- Solskjær prioritized getting into the Champions League and gambled the semi final by fielding a weaker team
- Solskjær thought using the 3–5–2 with Scott and Fred vs a big 6 side should be enough as it has been throughout the season. If things go south, he has the better players on the bench.
The 1st half of that semi final was going according to plan, if you choose to believe point 2. It was edging to 0–0 at HT until De Gea fumbles Giroud’s flick. The one decision that many of us can criticize Solskjær for was, why De Gea over Romero when Romero had always been the cup keeper (sounds like a harry potter movie that, “the cup keeper”)? This decision becomes even worse as De Gea fumbles Mount’s shot from range right after the 2nd half started.
Furthermore, United were dealt a blow by Shaw’s injury in the fixture before that semi final, who was becoming a crucial player for United in the way the buildup and attack. This played nicely into Chelsea’s plan. While Shaw is press resistant, Williams is not.
The inexperienced young FB was used as press trigger that game, clever plan by Chelsea. Bailly and Maguire locking heads before half time also was a moment of scare as it seemed United could have lost both CBs at the same time. Maguire continued with band aided head throughout the match and it was evident he was not the same after the hit, and it resulted in him scoring an own goal from simple Chelsea cross under no pressure.
These are all incidents that went against United — there were others — but I will not take anything away from the good job that Chelsea did in that game. They had a good plan and it worked even if it was helped by a lot of small incidents that went their way and against United.
Can you call this ‘weak mentality’? or ‘bottling mentality’? It’s a no from me. Even though it was a frustrating loss. Also, given what was on the line between a cup win and a Champions league spot, which in turn could help United rebuild faster, it was kind of the obvious choice that the FA Cup had less priority.
Semi Final Three: Europa League 2020
This time, United faced a Sevilla side known for their pedigree in the Europa League. After beating United, they went on to beat Inter Milan. This saw Sevilla win the competition a record 6th time.
That being said, United absolutely should have won that game. They created ~14 chances with ~3 clear cut but their finishing was poor on the day. It also didn’t help that Yassine Bounou, Sevilla’s goalkeeper, had one of his best performances for the Spanish side. United had 20 shots on his goal with 7 on target, which saw him making 6 saves with 2 of them being exceptional.
Sevilla weathered the United storm with the aid of their goalkeeper until their manager Lopetegui made 2 changes to cover them defensively. Those changes helped Sevilla restrain United better but it never looked like Sevilla were going to score a goal until a terrible miscommunication between Lindelöf and Wan-Bissaka. This led De Jong to tap in a simple cross from Navas that Williams failed to block.
Many fingers where pointed at Solskjær for not making a single substitution until the 86th minute. However, in his defense, all his best players were on the pitch and the options available on the bench didn’t have the attacking quality to make an impact. If the substitution is not going to add something different, why make it? It doesn’t make a manager smarter or more competent if they make early substitutions. More often than not, it means they got something wrong and they needed to fix it.
United’s plan vs Sevilla was not wrong and at no point, United looked like they were under threat. Sevilla just defended brilliantly and got helped but their keeper when United got through them.
Sometimes putting too many attacking players can cause the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
United really should have won that Semi. This did make one thing evident, this team was inexperienced. United simply were not at their best — finishing wise and it didn’t help them that Bono put in a brilliant performance for Sevilla that day.
This result had a small argument to make in the discussion of ‘bottling’ but again I would say, it is not like Manchester United dropped a stinker vs a team that they should have beaten easily. Sevilla is a good opponent and United hammered them but just couldn’t finish. This is where the ‘luck’ in cup ties or ‘magic’ of the cup, as they say, played a part. It’s a no from me on United bottling but I would understand if someone had reservations on that one.
Semi Final Four: Carabao Cup 2021
This Semi Final was a bit different. It was a measure of how good Man Utd have actually become under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Why? Because Solskjær had been testing his team’s ability to go toe-to-toe with the big boys all season. A month earlier, United met City in the league and that game ended in a 0–0, where both teams and managers have been accused of being too cautious.
From Solskjær’s stand point, he used his regular formation with his regular line-up. The criticism had to do with using Fred and McTominay in a double pivot, whenever Solskjær uses those two he gets accused of being ‘defensive’. To Solskjær, these two bring balance and energy to the team, even if they take the sting out of United’s firepower a bit. In addition, Solskjær could argue that some of the biggest performances and score lines — he has had as manager of Manchester United — came when those two where in the starting line-up.
From Guardiola’s point of view, he got burned too many times on the counter attack by teams and since he is coming up against one of the most lethal counter-attacking teams, it was a sensible thing to be more reserved.
I know I went a bit off topic here, but there’s a point I am trying to make in all this. If you looked at how both managers approached their previous 4 games against each other, you’ll notice that, the derby in December 2020, it was Ole Gunnar Solskjær that went a little offensive, from the 3–5–2 to the default 4–2–3–1, to test his team. While Guardiola went a little defensive, from 4–3–3 to 4–2–3–1 with Fernandinho and Rodri as pivots, being weary of United’s counter attack.
Now in the semi final, both teams went into the game in hot form. City solved their defensive issues on the transition and United seemed to be on course to be top of the league, blowing everyone out of their way — not in a goal scoring sense.
Guardiola realized that if he were to breach United’s defense, he had to overwhelm their ‘McFred’ and dominate the midfield. He saw what RBL did to Man United in Germany and used the same idea with a few different tweaks.
He played with no traditional number 9. Mahrez was the CF on the day and he asked him to drop in the midfield between the double pivot. However, Man Utd learned their lesson from that defeat in Germany and both teams completely shut each other down centrally. It looked like United were getting a grasp of how to compete with City on similar terms.
Unfortunately for United, their miseries in set-pieces came back to haunt them. An issue they faced all season and not just in that game. City scored the most un-city like goals anyone has seen from them in a while.
Man United pressed Man City effectively and their defensive organization was impressive in the first half of the match. They also had opportunities to punish City in the first half. After going down 1–0, Man United fought back and they had their own chances but their final pass was not good enough on the day and Rashford couldn’t make the most out of the 1v1 situations he was in vs Zinchenko.
All in all, Man United competed admirably despite falling short on quality in comparison to Man City. Man United do not have the quality across the board that Man City have. They are unfortunately stuck in that ‘almost there’ place where they need to get players to fill the gaps and increase the quality both in attack and in midfield to be able to control the likes of Man City.
Was this a “Weak mentality” loss? Were the players “bottlers”? Absolutely not. The game plan was sound. Both teams had their chances but the one with more quality had the rub of the green, which was not surprising. Man United were in the game for 84 minutes until the Fernandinho goal.
Semi Final Five: Europa League 2021
Enter Roma. I am not going to make this one long. Manchester United were on good form coming into this game vs. a Roma side that was not on a good form and had to deal with a couple injuries' before and during the game. Man United thrashed them as they should. No tweaks, no tactical changes or any of this voodoo. Manchester United were simply the better team.
Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjær were not bottlers or weak. The fact that they got to 5 semi finals under Solskjær in his 1st 2 full seasons, where they are rebuilding the foundation of the club and the team, should be lauded not criticized. Is it his fault that United got knocked out by teams that were either miles better than United as a team (i.e. Cityx2) or had better circumstances (i.e. Chelsea)? No.
The last element in all this is ‘luck’.
Cup ties have an element of luck in them and no one can deny that. For example in their semi vs Roma, Roma were on the receiving end of bad luck with injuries during the first half, they also received some luck back from Pogba giving them a penalty on a plate and a complete fart in defense by United for their only 2 attacking moves of the half. Just like United not finishing any of their chances vs Sevilla, while at the same time Bono awakening his inner Manuel Neuer.
These things happen and fans and pundits that build narratives should be able to tell the difference instead brainwashing people with certain agendas.
All that being said, football is a cut throat industry — Unfortunately — winning is all that matter for many fans and the media needs a target to make a story. There’s no better target than one of the biggest clubs in the world — Manchester United Football Club. Solskjær and the reds know that better than any. Luckily, their latest win vs Roma seems to have finally put this semi final story to bed — hopefully.
Fun fact: Sir Matt Busby and Ole Gunnar Solskjær are the only two managers in Manchester United history to reach 4 Semi finals in 2 seasons and lose all 4 of them. Sir Matt did so in 64/65 and 65/66.
Up the tricky reds!
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