Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows his Manchester United team is still a way off competing for the Premier League title, but he believes their defensive solidity is key to their future targets.
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Speaking to reporters after their 1-0 home win against West Ham on Sunday, Solskjaer brought up the fact that his side have now secured four shutouts in a row in the league as they sit second in the Premier League table.
That was the first time United have recorded four league shutouts on the spin that since he took charge in November 2018, and ProSoccerTalk asked about the defensive plan and if it represents progress.
“You have to defend well to get clean sheets in the Premier League. We’ve scored more goals this season than last season, we are improving as an attacking team as well,” Solskjaer explained. “But the attitude of everyone of doing the work that Kieran [McKenna] and Michael [Carrick] are doing, the work on the training ground and in the meeting rooms is absolutely spot on.
“The details the coaches give the players, they listen, they look, that is more and more about modern football. We want to attack teams by defending really high and being on the front foot defensively. It takes a lot of energy to do that and I think modern football requires that and we’ve got players who, I didn’t feel the need today to take them off because I felt every single player, to a tee, did a job defensively.”
Are Manchester United too defensive?
Solskjaer is delighted with that solid foundation he has built, and there is no doubt that is why United have progressed from being top four hopefuls for most of last season to now sitting in second place and their place in the top four seems very secure.
Yes, they conceded 36 times in 38 games last season and have conceded 32 times in 29 games so far this season, but take the Tottenham game out of the equation and a few really poor individuals errors, and they have definitely learned to grind out wins and draws when they’re not playing well.
Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have improved massively at full back, while Scott McTominay and Fred have forged a formidable partnership in front of the back four to improve their defensive shape and solidity.
But are they too defensive?
Solskjaer has had his critics, especially in big games recently against Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool this season, but it’s clear he has a plan and some times it can be a little too negative. But it is all about getting that balance right of defending high up the pitch.
Some may ridicule him for being boring or just a counter-attacking merchant, but it is working. Sort of.
United still want to win trophies, make a deep run in the Champions League and challenge seriously for the title and that’s the next step. But as Manchester City have shown this season, having a solid defensive unit is key to being successful.
So often we get caught up in the open, expansive attacking style of title-winning teams that we forget about their incredible defensive solidity. Liverpool and Man City have proved that during the last two seasons.
Manchester United injury news
There was also a positive injury update from Solskjaer on five players ahead of their UEFA Europa League last 16 second leg trip to Milan on Thursday, as Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek could feature, while David de Gea is out of self-isolation and Paul Pogba may also return.
“We hope, we actually hope all five of them will be back,” Solskjaer said. “David [De Gea] hopefully, Donny [van de Beek], Edinson [Cavani], Paul [Pogba] maybe, and Anthony [Martial] is very likely to be back. So a stronger squad to travel to Italy with.”
At a crucial stage of the season as United look to seal a top four spot, reach the FA Cup semifinals and reach the last eight of the Europa League, having these players return from injury is great news.
But Solskjaer must now make tough choices as his back four and midfield looks really settled.