Almost two years after he replaced Jose Mourinho as manager of Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s own position appears uncertain.
The Norwegian has endured a tough start to the 2020/21 season. Eight league games in, Man United are in the bottom half of the table and recently suffered a particularly embarrassing defeat in the Champions League to group stage debutants Istanbul Basaksehir.
They bounced back with a 1-3 win at Everton but the wheels may already have been set in motion for his removal. Man United have approached Mauricio Pochettino about replacing Solskjaer, MEN claimed earlier this month.
The former Tottenham Hotspur manager was linked with replacing Mourinho when he was first fired in late 2018.
So how would Man United line up under Pochettino? And who could be set to win or lose from his potential arrival should they call time on Solskjaer’s reign?
The first choice
Pochettino didn’t stick to one formation at Tottenham, changing things up when games and form required, but his favourite (following on from his Southampton stint) was by far the 4-2-3-1.
Arguably the most popular formation in football right now, the 4-2-3-1 allows defensive stability with the two holding midfielders without taking away from the attack. It’s the formation Solskjaer has opted for this season, but Pochettino uses his system slightly differently.
The back five would largely stay the same under Pochettino, with David De Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire to be joined by Alex Telles. Luke Shaw and Pochettino have a good relationship from their time together at Southampton, but the Argentinian may prefer Telles for what he can bring to the team in attack.
Moving into the midfield, one of the bigger changes could see Donny van de Beek drawn into a deeper role to likely replace Fred. Van de Beek isn’t a defensive midfielder but that doesn’t mean he cannot function deeper, as we saw at Ajax on occasion. And this isn’t a completely defensive position.
Pochettino’s best midfielder in the pivot was always Moussa Dembélé, an incredibly reliable player who advanced the ball without surrendering possession and was a safe dribbler and tenacious tackler. Pochettino often had one man to sit, usually Moussa Sissoko in his final full season. At Man United, that sounds like a job tailor-made for Scott McTominay.
On paper, the front four will look bizarre, particularly with Paul Pogba out on the wing, but he has been used there from the bench in recent games against Everton and Chelsea and Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1s are a lot more narrow, which would have the Frenchman playing closer to the middle.
League stats since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge:
- Games: 44
- Goals: 11 (fourth at club)
- Assists: 9 (third)
- Chances created: 69 (second)
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It’s a system that worked well with the likes of Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura, and most obviously Dele Alli at Tottenham and should boost the attacking influence of Pogba on this Man United team, allowing him to probe and raid at will.
Bruno Fernandes will continue to be key in the attack role while Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will interlink as Son and Harry Kane did at Tottenham, providing goalscoring threat from out wide and centrally.
A defensive option
The 4-2-3-1 won’t always work for Man United, and Pochettino would need a formation to provide more cover in defence. In the past, that has been the 3-4-2-1 and it’s a formation he could carry over to Man Utd.
Again, De Gea starts in goal until his form drastic decreases and Dean Henderson can replace him, but there could be a new face in the back line.
Eric Bailly isn’t fit at the moment, but Man United managers don’t seem to favour the Ivorian, who appears to have lost a step due to injury. Therefore, we could see Pochettino call on Shaw to play on the left side of a back three, a position he has played previously. His spot on the left would allow Telles to attack with more freedom while Wan-Bissaka offers balance on the right, and the opportunity to switch to a back four if his partner is caught up the pitch.
In between the wing-backs, Pochettino could retain the partnership of McTominay and Fred that has proven tough to beat when they are both on their game. Again, their job is to sit deep, protecting the defence, and moving the ball up to the forward players to work their magic. It’s not the most exciting job, or attacking formation, but this will be for the games Pochettino would expect to be on the back foot in.
The attacking players on Man United’s books means there isn’t much change, with Pogba and Fernandes forming a duo behind the striker, like Son and Lucas did at Tottenham. In this instance, the chosen forward is Rashford, having a better goalscoring record than Martial, but the Frenchman (or Mason Greenwood) could easily switch in to replace any of the three players.
Winners and losers if Pochettino joined Man United:
- Winner – Paul Pogba: The Frenchman has constantly been linked with a move away from Man United, and Pochettino hasn’t been shy of letting people go if they might cause problems, but he could win by staying. Pogba’s biggest problem right now is he has no place in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1, which uses width, and he is being chronically under-coached. Pochettino’s more narrow forward formation, plus the Argentine’s obvious and proven coaching excellence, could play to Pogba’s strengths and let him thrive once more.
- Winner – Ed Woodward: Woodward isn’t a popular man at Old Trafford, at least among the fans, but if he were to lure Pochettino to the club it could go some way to build bridges. However, Pochettino’s history with working under Daniel Levy could also allow Woodward to continue his investment plan of looking to cut Man United’s spending.
- Loser – Fred: If Pochettino comes in, and implements the 4-2-3-1 we have predicted, then Fred could be among those cut from the team. The Brazilian is a good player, but he doesn’t seem to be a player that can work in Pochettino’s system as effectively as, say, Donny van de Beek. He’d become a back-up.
- Loser – Brandon Williams: The signing of Alex Telles will have already hurt Williams’ chances of first-team football but should Pochettino arrive then it can only mean more bad news. When fit, Telles should be the undisputed number one choice at left-back and Shaw’s relationship with Pochettino is likely to work in his favour for back-up, which could hamper Williams’ progress.