Critics of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man United have often cited the lack of a clear tactical plan.
After the 2-1 victory in the Manchester derby, the Norwegian silenced some of his doubters as his side demonstrated their counterattacking threat.
The pace of Marcus Rashord, Anthony Martial, Dan James and Jesse Lingard overwhelmed Man City that day and ultimately allowed United to leave their rivals’ nest with three points despite having just 28% possession.
Rashford in particular was devastating in transition.
And Solskjaer deserves credit for his part in the Englishman’s impressive showing.
It was noticeable that Rashford stayed high up the pitch when City were in possession, leaving Fred to help out Luke Shaw on the left-hand side of United’s defence.
Solskjaer clearly believed the 22-year-old would create bigger problems for City than his positioning would cause for United — and he was proved right.
City were perhaps a tad naive in their failure to target Shaw, who appeared exhausted before being replaced by Ashley Young late in the game.
Pep Guardiola’s side focused much of their attack down Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s side in the first half.
United’s right-back is arguably the best defensive full-back in the league (Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira could also claim that crown) and he dealt with the threat of Raheem Sterling admirably.
No player on either team completed more tackles than Wan-Bissaka.
It took a certain degree of bravery to direct Rashford to stay high.
Many sides believe the only way to get anything out of a trip to the Etihad is to have all eleven men behind the ball.
Solskjaer had faith in his side’s counterattacking menace because a precedent had been set.
United have proved themselves tactically sound against the Premier League’s better teams.
Victory in the derby follows wins against Spurs, Leicester, Chelsea, and draws against Arsenal and Liverpool — they remain the only team to take any points off Jurgen Klopp’s side in 2019/20.
Contrast that list with the teams they’ve lost to this season and a pattern emerges: Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth.
When United are able to let the onus fall upon the other team, they can implement their effective counterattacks.
When they are forced to be the dominant team, they struggle to break down deeper defences.
So while the Rashford-inspired counter has to be the set-up in what Sky Sports pundits would describe as ‘massive games’, United will be expected to command games more often than not.
Their Plan B is brilliant, but their Plan A needs work.
Paul Pogba has the attributes to unlock deep blocks.
The Frenchman often shoots from distance and has the vision required to play throughballs in tight spaces.
Solskjaer said prior to the derby that be hopes the 26-year-old midfielder will return to the first team before the new year.
Historically, Juan Mata has exhibited creativity capable of undoing stubborn defences but at 31, the Spaniard’s peak may be behind him.
Gary Neville insists Solskjaer needs ‘three or four’ transfer windows before we can judge him properly.
While that’s a considerable commitment, United’s recent recruitment (Harry Maguire, James, Wan-Bissaka) is evidence of an improved strategy.
If Solskjaer can hone Plan A he may yet enjoy a sustained period at the helm of the club he loves with appropriate backing from Ed Woodward and co.
He’s done the hard part, now he needs to eliminate the lacklustre performances against bottom-half opposition.