When conceptions turn into misconceptions, we are sometimes slow to catch on.
This is understandable with so many other things in life demanding our attention and frankly, given the state of the world right now, it’s a small wonder we retain the information that we do.
Even so, as Manchester United prepare to take on Liverpool in a top-of-the-table clash at Anfield this weekend maybe it’s time we reassessed the notion that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer boasts an impressive record against the top six.
It is a trope that certainly used to ring true and for a good while the Norwegian seemed to have the big clubs’ number.
Only now the very opposite applies.
A respectable return
Solskjaer’s overall record against the top six since taking the reins at Old Trafford remains pretty decent. In 26 games he has bested Guardiola and co on ten occasions, losing nine times and – obviously – drawing the rest.
It’s a 38.4% win ratio that pales to Mikel Arteta’s 43.7% but puts Frank Lampard’s poor 28.5% success rate against his immediate peers in the shade. When stood alone, losing just nine from 26 encounters v Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool is respectable enough given the recent dominance of the latter two and the coin-flip nature of such big games.
A problem arises however when these figures are broken down and what’s more, it’s a concern that further leads us to believe that Liverpool will prevail on Sunday for all the visitor’s recent fine form that has seen them unbeaten in 11.
In Solskjaer’s two-and-a-bit years in charge his experiences when competing with the Premier League’s elite can be split neatly down the middle.
In his first 12 months United played Arsenal et al 13 times and won seven of them, drawing four and losing only twice. Given that the Reds’ average league position throughout 2019 was sixth this is an impressive feat and suggests that United enjoyed ‘punching up’. We saw this too of course in Europe with that brilliant 3-1 win in Paris.
The reasoning behind their ability to raise their game for the big occasion was commonly attributed to United’s counter-attacking ways and there was clear logic to this. Solskjaer’s set-up would usually work a treat against sides that came onto them – in 22 of the 26 fixtures the Reds stayed deep for the most part and invited pressure – and conversely it was when trying to navigate the low-block of lesser opponents they would typically come unstuck. This is evidenced by numerous defeats across 2019, firing blanks at West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and elsewhere.
Against the big boys though, Ole had it sussed.
In 2020 however his track record against the top six dips quite alarmingly. In their last 13 games United have won out only three times, drawn three, and lost seven. It is almost an exact opposite of their 2019 pedigree.
It stands to reason therefore that if United’s counter-attacking methodology explains their relative success in 2019 it also suggests their top six rivals learnt from this. They got cute. They stopped throwing bodies forward and instead picked the right moments. And all to United’s cost.
United have drawn a blank at Anfield in four of their last five visits. The 11/4 available for Liverpool to win to nil is a sensible shout.
A tale of two Uniteds
This is best illustrated by United’s tussles with their arch-neighbours City, even if the dates do not directly correspond with the theory.
Last season Solskjaer’s men unexpectedly won a league double in the derbies and did so by making absolutely no bones about their approach. They sat back throughout and waited for City to over-commit before using the pace of Rashford and Martial to devastating effect.
The numbers bear this out. In fact, the numbers are astonishing. At the Etihad the visitors had just 28% of the possession and made 39 clearances. They won 2-1.
Compare this daylight robbery to the Carabao Cup semi last week. A chastened Guardiola this time ensured his defence was much better protected, with Gundogan offering support alongside Fernandinho in midfield and with United’s primary means of attack nullified they were out-classed throughout.
So where does this leave Solskjaer now that his Plan A against the big clubs has been rumbled, with opponents now tempering their ambition so as not to play into United’s hands?
It leaves him with a good deal to think about prior to heading down the M62 on Sunday. It might even have him considering the scrapping of a system he knows so well and loves.
Because even before his counter-attacking strategy lost its effectiveness Liverpool were already the team best equipped to deal with it, with their three energetic midfielders always providing coverage for their centre-backs while two flying full-backs and a trio of sublime attackers commit serious damage safe in the knowledge that mistakes can be made. It’s why the former super-sub has yet to beat Klopp and Liverpool in three attempts.
For sure United are full of momentum and self-belief right now after dramatically turning their season around and topping the table post-new year for the first time since 2013.
Yet it’s ironic they go into this game in the best shape possible but ultimately it might be their shape that proves to be their undoing.
Liverpool have got off the mark three times in the third minute this term. Klopp’s men are 21/10 to win both halves.