Louis van Gaal has spoken up recently about many things, including his former club Manchester United.
The recently retired managerial legend had a typically controversial view of life at Old Trafford under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Whilst everyone and their mother has been singing along to “Ole’s at the wheel,” it turns out Van Gaal is still marching to the beat of his own drum.
“People think we have only had fake news since Donald Trump became president. In football we have had it for 50 years,” said Van Gaal in a BBC interview, adding: “The coach after me [Mourinho] changed to park-the-bus tactics and played on the counter. Now there is another coach who parks the bus and plays on the counter. The main difference between Mourinho and Solskjaer is that Solskjaer is winning.”
That’s a pretty bold claim from Van Gaal. Now to be fair he does concede that Solskjaer has improved the atmosphere and changed Paul Pogba’s position, but it’s hard to get past that initial statement. So hard, in fact, that we had a dive into the data to see what’s what.
Does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer really park the bus?
There is undoubtedly more energy around Manchester United now than there was when José Mourinho in charge. Even following two successive defeats, the fans remain upbeat and optimistic whereas under Mourinho even victories would often be clouded in negativity. Things have changed for the better.
But has Solskjaer achieved this change by actually keeping Mourinho’s tactics? Well, let’s take a look at an opponent that United played under Mourinho and Solskjaer: Liverpool. One of the favourites for the title race, when they met on 16th December the Reds won 3-1 and that defeat signalled the end of Mourinho’s tenure.
The rematch came two months later and United under Solskjaer managed a 0-0 draw against Liverpool. A clear improvement, but how was the game played? Liverpool had 22 shots at Anfield, but managed just 9 at Old Trafford. Again, an improvement by United.
But hold on: Liverpool had 64% possession against Mourinho’s men, and against Solskjaer this actually jumped to 65%. Then you look at the average positions of the players in the game and United played an almost identical low block in both games. In fact, their approach was remarkably similar in both games; park the bus and pray for luck on the break.
That’s Liverpool, though. The Reds are one of the two best teams in the country. Surely a less dominant opponent would yield different results, right? What about Spurs? United lost 0-3 with Mourinho in charge and won 0-1 under Solskjaer, no contest, right?
Well against Spurs at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s men allowed just six shots in total – conceding every time Spurs put one on target. Meanwhile at Wembley Pochettino’s men rattled off 20 shots and David De Gea needed to be at his brilliant best to keep them out. The possession was mostly even, tilting Spurs’ way in both games. And again, look at the average positions, they’re remarkably similar with United set low.
And yes, Spurs are also a big side but even if you look at the games against Crystal Palace, it’s very clear that whilst the results changed (from a 0-0 draw under Mourinho to a 1-3 win with Solskjaer) the way United are structured defensively has not changed. Van Gaal’s assertion, that United park the bus and play on the break, is true.
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Why has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer done so well?
Van Gaal’s analysis may be accurate but it is also incomplete. It describes what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has retained from José Mourinho, sure, but not what he has added. The difference is simply chalked up to Solskjaer “winning” but that is reductive and unfair.
The answer to why Solskjaer has done so well can be found in Van Gaal’s original quote. The Dutchman said the Norwegian “parks the bus and plays on the counter,” and yes, he does. He plays on the counter. That’s the difference. What Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does with his forwards is what José Mourinho hasn’t done for years; he has them play hard, fast and direct.
United played 17 Premier League games under Mourinho and 13 so far under Solskjaer. And yes United make 19.46 clearances per-game now to the 22.53 they did under Mourinho. And sure they win 59% of their 14.08 tackles per-game instead of 56% of their 16.29. They are having to defend less because they use the ball so much more.
It may still be quick and on the counter, but United have played 300.69 passes per-game in the opponents half this season, completing 234.38 of them (78%). That’s up across the board on Mourinho’s men (when they completed just 207.76 passes per game (75%). United move the ball faster and more frequently between attacking players, meaning defenders get tired tracking their movements, which opens up the spaces for them to attack.
United have completed an impressive 59% of their 16.38 dribbles, a big jump on completing 47% of 15.29 under Mourinho. Moreover they now take way more shots. Under their Portuguese coach they rattled off 9.71 shots per-game and scored 1.71 goals per-game from them.
With Solskjaer? They shoot 11.46 times per-game and score 2.23 a game. Their shot conversion has gone up to 19.46% even though they are shooting more often than they used to. This tells of a side that is taking better shots from better positions because their attacking movement is swifter and more intelligent.
Perhaps most tellingly: under José Mourinho’s management United managed to take just three shots from fast-breaks, scoring 0 goals. Whilst with Ole at the wheel The Red Devils have popped off 11 shots from fast-break situations, scoring three goals in the process. In total they’ve managed the same number of league goals scored under Solskjaer as Mourinho (29) despite playing fewer games.
So, do Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United park the bus and play on the counter? Absolutely. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s probably the only way this squad, still sorely lacking in defensive quality, could actually play well – especially against great sides. “The media do not analyse the game,” Van Gaal said in that interview. “They analyse the result.”
Very true. But if one analyses the game thoroughly, one would see that even though the defensive structure is the same, even though the team defends in a low block, their ability to counter-attack at pace is a lethal weapon that has transformed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United into an effective team that can win games and compete with superior sides whilst also being exciting to watch.
You haven’t been able to say that about a José Mourinho side since 2014. That’s the difference.