Football Features

“Ole’s back-three audition offers hope” – Man Utd thrash Tranmere to record biggest win since Fergie’s retirement

By Ben Green

Published: 16:57, 26 January 2020

Manchester United booked their place in the FA Cup fifth round by easing past Tranmere Rovers 6-0 in difficult conditions.

The Red Devils made light work of the League One outfit, who played only three days ago against Watford in their FA Cup third round replay, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side racing into a 5-0 lead at half-time.  

Harry Maguire opened the floodgates in only the 10th minute and his defensive teammate Diogo Dalot decided to get in on the action just three minutes later. From there Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones and Anthony Martial inflicted further blows to provide the visitors a comfortable cushion at the interval.

Mason Greenwood put the eventual seal on a fine performance from the spot, giving Solskjaer a much-needed win and taking some of the growing pressure off his shoulders.

It was a scintillating showing from Man Utd on a less than agreeable Prenton Park pitch, but what did we learn?   

1. Back-three audition pays dividends ahead of Man City

There were palpable murmurs prior to kick-off that Solskjaer was showing Tranmere too much respect by lining up with a back-three. Given the Merseyside club currently sit 21st in League One and played against Watford only three days ago, those grievances seemed somewhat justified.

As it turns out Solskjaer’s unorthodox 3-4-1-2, which the Norwegian has previously experimented with, worked a treat to stifle Micky Mellon’s side, who looked bereft of ideas and confidence whenever a surge of red shirts piled forward. 

The tactical set-up liberated the bylines so Dalot and Luke Shaw could gallop forward and operate almost as out-and-out wingers. With Nemanja Matic the safeguard anchoring the midfield, Maguire was also handed license to slalom up the pitch and showcase his innate qualities in the final third. Maguire often showed a propensity to surge forward during his Leicester days, such is his comfort on the ball, and it paid off this afternoon as he scored his first-ever Man Utd goal.

Perhaps with one eye on Man City next week, Solskjaer utilised this game to indoctrinate his ideas before the big showdown.

2. Dalot offers Solskjaer a managerial headache

One of the success stories of this season has been the rise and sheer excellence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The ex-Crystal Palace right-back has seamlessly made the transition to Solskjaer’s system and offers a very unique skillset that seems almost lost on many of the game’s modern full-backs: tackling virtuosity. 

Dalot can be said to fall under this category. But, what the Portuguese lacks in the art of defending, he more than makes up for in his attacking brilliance. A bone of contention among many Man Utd fans this campaign has been the weakness of Wan-Bissaka’s attacking game. He is for all intents and purposes an archetypal No. 2 –  the least glamours of shirt numbers – in that, defending is his main game.

This is certainly not a criticism of Wan-Bissaka, who has excelled this season and amazed with his ability to read the game, his defensive sophistication and most importantly, his timing. But in Dalot, Solskjaer has a right-back who is able to charge forward and offer a genuine threat in the final third. 

The three-at-the-back system allowed the 20-year-old to get into dangerous areas of the pitch without jeopardising the right flank as Victor Lindelof moved across to cover. It is certainly not a bad thing to have two different types of player in one position, but if Dalot continues to put in performances like this then it will bring something of a managerial headache in future games for Solskjaer.

3. A day for broken ducks and no more droughts

Sometimes all a player needs is just one goal to bring back confidence and offer a new wave of impetus. This afternoon Man Utd saw two players net their first goals for the club, while another two ended some very concerning droughts.

Maguire and Dalot were both on the scoresheet for the first time in a Man Utd jersey, while Jesse Lingard and Phil Jones were also unfamiliar names to pop up with goals. Lingard last scored a domestic goal – prior to this afternoon – at this point last year against Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round. For an attacking midfielder at Man Utd, that is an exceptionally alarming sight.

Fans will be hopeful the England international has turned a corner and can now build on his eye-catching goal by providing the goods in more important fixtures against more defensively formidable sides. Jones was also able to breach the Tranmere net, etching his name on the scoresheet for the first time in over 2100 days. It was a rudimentary headed goal but sat well alongside the more sleek finishes of his teammates.  

4. Congested schedule hinders Tranmere

Tranmere’s FA Cup third-round replay against Watford was originally set to take place on January 14, but was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch brought on by Storm Brendan, and had to be rescheduled for the Thursday just gone.

That a side languishing near the foot of the third tier had to pit their wits against two Premier League clubs in the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup is difficult enough, but to do so within the space of four days was always going to be a tall order.

Usually it’s the Premier League sides competing in Europe on Thursday and then playing just days later on the Sunday, but the shoe was on the other foot this afternoon as Tranmere took on the gruelling task, and it ultimately proved too much.

Granted, Watford put out a weakened side in midweek, but there was plenty of quality in Nigel Pearson’s XI and Tranmere produced wonders to navigate past two tricky fixtures against the Hornets. It just wasn’t the fairytale story at Prenton Park this afternoon.

5. Romero’s ridiculous record grows

Sergio Romero has now kept 12 clean sheets in 15 FA Cup appearances for Man Utd, conceding just four goals in that timeframe. It is a remarkable record for a player on the fringes, and offers Solskjaer comfort knowing that his back-up goalkeeper can excel between the sticks in the absence of David de Gea.

Looking at the Argentine’s record more broadly, he has played 32 games for Man Utd in all domestic competitions, kept 22 cleans sheets and conceded just 16 goals.  

In truth, Tranmere scarcely offered a consistent threat to really rattle Romero and add any blemishes to his impeccable record, but when questions were asked, the 32-year-old was there to snuffle out the danger and keep Man Utd’s clean sheet intact.