Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to defend his future this week amid growing pressure.
The Red Devils have not had the best 2019/20 campaign. Currently, they are ninth in the Premier League after 14 games and without a win in their past three games across all competitions, a run including draws with Sheffield United and Aston Villa either side of a defeat to Astana.
Doubts surrounding Solskjaer’s future will have only been added to by the recent departures of Mauricio Pochettino and Unai Emery. With Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal having both made big calls to try and turn their own seasons around, focus will shift to whether United do the same.
And this is to say nothing of the fact Pochettino has long been linked with United, even while still in charge of Tottenham. His recently acquired free agency has seen such discussions intensify.
The Argentinian himself fuelled speculation by revealing his intention to immediately return to work in Europe, despite taking a short break to relax in his native country. “There are a lot of clubs and attractive projects for me to take on,” he said.
Things are not exactly about to get easier for Solskjaer and United, with games against Tottenham and Manchester City coming up in the next week.
And there were reports, Solskjaer told his United players that losing these next two games would bring an end to his time in charge at Old Trafford.
However, in his pre-match press conference ahead of the Tottenham clash, Solskjaer described said reports as ‘blatant lies’.
Even if this is the case, Wednesday’s clash with Tottenham will be one to watch considering it reunites Old Trafford and Jose Mourinho, the manager sacked and replaced by Solskjaer just under a year ago.
Have Man Utd actually regressed in some ways post-Mourinho?
Mourinho’s return brings one thing sharply into focus: a significant amount of the coverage surrounding Solskjaer’s reign at United has been negative, despite the Norwegian having begun with a record-breaking win streak start.
Solskjaer is not the first manager to struggle there and many of his supporters insist the Norwegian needs more time to impress himself on this United team. But there are some areas where the team have taken a backwards step since Mourinho left.
Over the years Mourinho has made a name for himself in coaching defensive brilliance. His 2004/05 Chelsea side still hold the record for the fewest amount of goals conceded in a single Premier League season, shipping just 15. Only Leicester City, Liverpool and Sheffield United have conceded fewer than that this season after 14 games.
Understandably, this is a near-impossible record to match, but Mourinho still managed to have an impact on United’s defence.
In his 93 Premier League matches, the Red Devils conceded 86 goals. This works out at an average of 0.92 per game, a respectable record. They also averaging one clean sheet every 2.45 games (38 overall), despite Mourinho’s constant complaints about being unable to fully strengthen his defence. In five transfer windows, they only bought him Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof and Diogo Dalot.
Mourinho had been interested in signing Harry Maguire, but it would be Solskjaer who oversaw that transfer in his first summer window.
The arrival of Maguire has not managed to change United’s poor defence under Solskjaer, however.
Since taking charge of his first match on December 22, 2018, Solskjaer’s United have conceded 42 goals in 35 matches at a worse average of 1.2 per game. In that same time, the Red Devils have managed to keep just seven clean sheets, having to wait for one every five games.
Although United are by no means the worst Premier League team defensively since Solskjaer took charge – in fact, only four teams have conceded fewer goals per game – when comparing the Norwegian manager with Mourinho, things are moving in the wrong direction.
It’s not just a leakier defence that has changed since Mourinho left United. Solskjaer has been unable to secure points in a similar manner to the Portuguese serial winner.
In 93 Premier League matches with United, Mourinho won 50 times, drawing 26 and losing 17. This gave United a total of 176 points under Mourinho, averaging 1.89 per game. Of all the teams in the Premier League’s Big Six, only Arsenal recorded fewer points (172) than United while Mourinho was in charge.
Once again things have got slightly worse under Solskjaer, with United winning 16, drawing 10 and losing nine of their 35 Premier League games post-Mourinho. This works out to an average of 1.66 points per game. Solskjaer’s blushes are saved slightly by Arsenal and Tottenham also underperforming this season, with only Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool winning more points out of the Big Six during that time.
However, Solskjaer’s start to the 2019/20 season is somewhat damning. After 14 games, United currently sit ninth in the Premier League, winning just four games alongside their six draws and four defeats to accumulate 18 points.
Mourinho only made it to 17 games in his final season in charge of United, with the club in sixth having won seven, drawn five and lost five. This amounts to 26 points in total, which means Solskjaer needs to win eight points from their next three games, against Spurs, Man City and Everton, just to equal this. So, either Solskjaer wins three in a row or finds himself in a worse position, points-wise, than Mourinho when United sacked him.
So how has Solskjaer improved Man Utd since Mourinho?
Despite the struggles in defence and winning points, there have been signs of general improvement since Solskjaer replaced Mourinho.
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Improvements in front of goal
It may not feel like it, especially after some initial problems this season, but United have slightly improved their goalscoring under Mourinho.
With the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial at his disposal, Mourinho’s United managed to score 151 goals in 93 Premier League games. An average of 1.62 goals per game. This was actually the worst record among the so-called Big Six, with United 31 behind the next lowest-scoring representative (Chelsea).
Lukaku was top scorer during that time, on 22 goals in 50 games to average 0.44 per match. Martial was the only other United player to break the 20 mark under Mourinho, averaging 0.29 goals per game.
Of Mourinho’s regulars, Ibrahimovic unsurprisingly maintained the strongest rate, scoring 0.52 goals per game in 18 months before leaving for LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, Paul Pogba averaged 0.2 goals per game before Mourinho’s departure.
Since Solskjaer took charge, United have enjoyed a slight improvement in this regard, scoring 57 in 35 games at an average of 1.63 per game. This is the fifth-best record in the Premier League during that time, with United sitting ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal with regards to the Big Six.
The best examples of improve among players have been Rashford and Pogba, with the former averaging 0.42 goals per game under Solskjaer. Pogba, meanwhile, averages 0.38. And while Lukaku saw a slight drop before joining Inter Milan, also averaged 0.38 goals per game, the United squad as a whole have seen benefits of a freer style of play.
The rise of Scott McTominay
But perhaps the biggest success of Solskjaer’s United reign so far has been the breakthrough of Scott McTominay.
The Scottish midfielder looked to be very much a Mourinho man, winning the Manager’s Player of the Season in 2017/18 after being brought up from the academy.
“He is the one who has done everything. He started the season in the academy and ended it playing big games in the Premier League. I thought this kid cannot go home without an award.”
Jose Mourinho on Scott McTominay in 2018
But he would only make 22 appearances last season under both Mourinho and Solskjaer – with the large majority of those matches coming under the Norwegian.
And this season, McTominay finds himself one of United’s most important players, so much so that his recent absence due to injury has the club looking worse.
In his 12 Premier League games so far, McTominay has had 835 touches, averaging 70.5 per 90 minute. Despite McTominay missing two games, only Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Lindelof have had more touches of the ball than the midfielder. McTominay has also managed 21 touches in the opposition box, a fairly impressive amount considering he is considered a defensive-minded midfielder.
McTominay has also completed more passes than any other United midfielder this season with 471 – 74 more than Fred, his nearest challenger – coming at an average of 39.77 per 90 minutes.
He is also proving himself to be tough to get off the ball, completing 18 take-ons in the Premier League so far this season. Only Rashford (25) has managed more for United. And when opponents have been able to take the ball away from McTominay, they often have to resort to illegal means; no United player has won more fouls in the Premier League (32) than the Scot.
But where McTominay has really thrived is in doing the hard work that no other United midfielder can replicate.
In the Premier League, McTominay (98) has won more duels than any other United player, while no outfielder has made more recoveries than his 92. The Scot has also made 27 tackles, only behind the impressive Wan-Bissaka.
McTominay’s impending return from injury will surely help get United’s season back on track, as a sign of the good work Solskjaer has done.