EPL

Guardiola's tactical masterclass exposes one-trick pony Solskjaer

By Sports Desk January 07, 2020

"Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, we want you to stay," came the chant from the stands late in the first half of Tuesday's EFL Cup semi-final first leg at Old Trafford.

With Manchester United trailing 3-0 to bitter rivals Manchester City, it was an endearing show of support… or at least it would have been were it not coming from the away fans.

It was a damning indictment of just how bad United had been before the break, as they failed to register a single shot on target and found themselves essentially kissing goodbye to another competition.

Just 39 per cent possession and not a single clear-cut opportunity to show for 45 minutes of football at home, United were utterly humiliated. A Bernardo Silva stunner, Riyad Mahrez's straightforward effort and Andreas Pereira's own goal put City in complete control at the interval, and it would have been so much worse were it not for Raheem Sterling fluffing his lines a couple of times.

United's problems were all too predictable.

With Pereira and Fred filling the deep-lying midfield roles the Red Devils drew 3-3 at Sheffield United in November, when for much of the game they just could not cope, and were held by Aston Villa in their next outing at home.

Pereira's hopelessness in the position against the Blades was glaring, to the extent where it seemed he would never be afforded the responsibility to play it again.

Yet, here he was again, starting against a City side blessed with supreme ability through the middle. The result? Pep Guardiola's men streaming forward almost unchecked right through the centre of the pitch.

The other common denominator from the clash with the Blades – when United were 2-0 down until the 72nd-minute – was Phil Jones, who looked completely sapped of confidence when called into action on Tuesday.

Solskjaer failed to learn from his mistakes – Guardiola did not.

When the two sides met exactly a month earlier in the Premier League, City were stunned by United's effectiveness on the counter, with Solskjaer's front four sitting unusually deep to make the most of their pace on the break.

United won the game 2-1 and probably should have gone into half-time 4-0 up, but virtually every sniff of a United counter was snuffed out early on this time around.

City's defence started deep to restrict space in behind, while Guardiola opted against using a striker, resulting in Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Sterling chopping and changing between themselves.

As such, United looked lost without an out-ball, while the fluidity of City's midfield and frontline allowed them control in the centre and plenty of creativity in attack without compromising their defence, for the most part.

The unpredictability of City's set-up was at its most effective for the second and third goals. Firstly, it was Silva feeding Mahrez straight down the middle, and then De Bruyne found himself doing the damage to make it 3-0, beating Jones with ease and seeing his effort bounce off David de Gea and ricochet in off Pereira.

Unfortunately for City, Nicolas Otamendi switched off for a split second after a wayward De Bruyne pass in the second half and United exploited that – Marcus Rashford pulling one back for the hosts following Mason Greenwood's throughball.

But that was a solitary moment of incisiveness from United when City were already well on their way to their 3-1 victory.

United's hopes of reaching the EFL Cup final and claiming a first trophy under Solskjaer now rely on them being able to outmanoeuvre City on the counter at Etihad Stadium.

But on the evidence of this first leg, Solskjaer is a one-trick pony and Guardiola has got him figured out.

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