Manchester United tactical review: 5 things we learned from Solskjaer’s dream first game in charge

Updated: 19/04/2024

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first game in charge of Manchester United could not have gone much better. Goals, confidence and positivity – three things that had blatantly run out in the dying months of the Jose Mourinho era.

Paul Pogba returned to the centre of midfield for the Red Devils, after his well-publicised tough relationship with Mourinho, aligning with past comments from Solskjaer about whether he would build his side around the Frenchman.

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After months of stodgy, stale performances and general negativity surrounding the club, a breath of fresh air was required for Man United. They were given the perfect start courtesy of a Marcus Rashford free kick, before a deflected Ander Herrera effort made it two inside the opening half an hour.

A wonderful penalty from Cardiff's Victor Camarasa cut the deficit, before a flowing move from Man United restored their two-goal lead. One-touch interplay put Anthony Martial through, before a neat finish made it 3-1.

It was the first time the Red Devils had scored 3 goals in the first half of an away game since November 2017. Jesse Lingard slotted home a penalty he won himself to make it four not long after the restart, before capping a great performance with his second and Man United's fifth in the 90th minute.

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So, how do Manchester United play under Solskjaer? It was the first time the Red Devils had scored five goals in a Premier League game since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

Here are the main tactical points from a new look side:

Positive full backs

Ashley Young looks to offer his energy down the right-hand side in Wales (Getty Images)

Not afraid to their overlap their own wide men, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young offered a freshness and positivity which had escaped Mourinho's Man United. Often pegged back and forced deep, in South Wales this could not have been further from the truth.

Happy to sit very high, almost at the halfway-line, whenever their central defenders or goalkeeper had the ball, Solskjaer clearly wants his side to set up in a more offensive manner. Rather than sitting in, the thought is to have a better presence in the midfield third and a spare option out wide.

Composed build-up play

Ander Herrera capped a solid performance with a goal (Getty Images)

As central defenders Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones split nice and wide, allowing for Man United's to position themselves further upfield as previously mentioned, there was more confidence and composure to be found in the away side's back four.

Matic and Herrera took it in turns to show deep, with the Serbia international often the player tasked with offering himself to feet should Jones or Lindelof come under pressure or need an outlet. It gave Man United a reliable way to play out from their own half, with no need to look long.

Pogba's free role

Paul Pogba looks to jink away from Junior Hoilett (Getty Images)

Paul Pogba registered his first goal or assist in all competitions since October 28, as the Frenchman teed up Herrera for his long-range, deflected effort in the first half.

Highlighting his evident confidence and composure with a neat no-look pass, as well as being involved in the build up to Martial's wonderful goal, Pogba was allowed to play a free role in midfield. Matic sat deepest, while Herrera provided cover nearby, allowing their marquee man to affect the game further forward.

In the 90th minute, a perfectly weighted through ball from the Frenchman laid Lingard through on goal to make it 5-1.

Fluid front three

Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard celebrate with Anthony Martial (Getty Images)

Allowing his wing backs to retain the width in midfield, Solskjaer did not only gift freedom to Pogba. Rashford, Lingard and Martial were the named as a fluid front three, as Romelu Lukaku was away on compassionate leave.

Lingard was tireless on the break, consistently racing into space to stretch the opposition midfield, forcing cynical fouls and even winning himself a penalty. Rashford used his pace to stretch the Cardiff back line.

Martial was able to drift out to the left-hand side and combine well with Shaw and Pogba, as well as wandering more centrally to be involved in neat passages of play like the one which led to his only goal of the evening.

Martial up top?

Martial celebrates tucking a neat finish beyond Etheridge (Getty Images)

After Rashford was brought off in the second half, Martial repositioned himself temporarily at the head of Solskjaer's attack. Fred was brought into midfield, as Man United re-jigged into more of a 4-2-3-1 with Lingard, Pogba and Herrera in behind.

The former Monaco youngster made a name for himself as a prospect while playing as a striker, rather than wide on the left-hand side, but it appears that Solskjaer is more than open to giving the Frenchman the chance to threaten centrally.

Solskjaer's Man United struck five times in an empathic win. While their caretaker boss may not have had long to work with his group on the training ground, the gloom has certainly lifted.

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