Does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Have a Plan for Manchester United?

It sure doesn't seem like it

About a year ago, right before halftime, Andreas Christensen was red-carded in a match at Stamford Bridge against Liverpool. That’s that, we all thought, despite the score still being level after the first 45. And we were right; Liverpool won easily, 2-0. 

A couple days ago, right before halftime, Reece James was red-carded in a match at Anfield against Liverpool. That’s that, we all thought -- again, despite the score still being level after the first 45. And we were ... wrong; the match ended, 1-1. The hosts out-shot the visitors, 14-2, in the second half, but never really seemed to come all that close to scoring. What was inevitable a year ago now seemed impossible, and what changed on the defensive end? Not much, other than the manager.

Over the long run, most managers don’t matter all that much. Wages predict results a lot better than whoever is on the sideline, but there also clearly are some coaches who positively affect results and some who negatively affect results -- with most professional coaches falling somewhere in the valley between. Perhaps Chelsea went from one end of the curve to the other when they fired Frank Lampard and hired Thomas Tuchel, and that’s why they’ve experienced such a massive uptick in performance. Or maybe Tuchel really just is that good.

We don’t know -- and ultimately we probably can’t know. There are too many moving pieces and interdependencies to really isolate the true impact of a manager -- or anyone else who plays or works for a club. But a day after Tuchel’s Chelsea frustrated Liverpool for 45 minutes, I watched Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United put in one of the worst performances you’ll ever see from a big club -- only to get bailed out by some poor finishing from Wolves, great goalkeeping by David De Gea, and a combo of the opposite from Mason Greenwood and Jose Sa. I wondered how many teams would definitively be better off if they swapped in OGS for their current coach, and I struggled to think of one.

The analyst James McMahon has created an incredible database on managerial styles and performance since 2017. To judge performance, he looked at a team’s wage bill compared to the rest of their league, and then was able to estimate what a team’s non-penalty expected goal difference should be. Based on how far above or below that expectation a team landed, each manager was given a “performance” rating on a 1-to-100 scale, with 50 meaning you exactly met expectations. Here’s how OGS has graded out:

-20-21 performance rating, Manchester United: 36
-19-20, Manchester United: 41
-18-19, Manchester United: 34

In McMahon’s project, he also grouped together managers based on a number of stylistic indicators to create eight clusters:

-Relentless: tons of possession and pressing
-Positive: tons of possession, not as much pressing
-Pressing: tons of pressing, not as much possession
-Chaotic: tons of pressing, not much possession, tons of forward passing
-Counter: not much pressing, lots of forward passing
-Safety first: Not much pressing, not much forward passing
-Direct: nothing but long balls
-Bus conductor: not much of anything

On average, the list of clusters are arranged in descending order for their average xG differentials: i.e. positive teams tend to play better than safety-first teams, and etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McMahon found that richer teams were more likely to land in the “relentless” cluster. Perhaps surprisingly, he also found that “relentless” teams were most likely to exceed their expectation, which suggests that a lot of smaller clubs perhaps play too conservatively; they could be better if they tried to play like Liverpool. Hell, just take a look at Leeds! 

Now, I bring this up here because Jose Mourinho had Manchester United all the way down in the “Counter” category despite a league-high wage bill in 2018-19. Over time, OGS has pushed United all the way up into the “Relentless” cluster, but should he get credit for that? Or did it just happen because the team was no longer coached by Mourinho? The economics -- and McMahon’s research -- suggest the latter.

Of course, it’s hard to overachieve when you have more money than anyone else, but despite last season’s second-place finish, United’s underlying performance under OGS hasn’t been anywhere near what their wage bill suggests it should be. On top of that, they remain substandard in the aspects of the game that are clearly coaching-related: structure in build-up play, structure in how they defend against opposition transitions.

It all adds up to a team that can’t control games. Last season, they took just 55 percent of the total shots in their matches, which ranked sixth in the league -- well behind City, Liverpool, and Chelsea, who were all above 62 percent. Through three games this year, United’s number hasn’t budged. Under OGS, they barely out-shoot their opponents but they manage to get by on enough individual quality -- both to create chances and finish them off -- that they continue finishing in the top four. At most, you could argue that OGS has United performing at the average level for their talent, but given all of the talent they’ve added since he arrived, even that feels like a stretch. Based on non-penalty xG -- the best predictor of success we have -- United really haven’t come close to City or Liverpool or even Chelsea, three teams to whom they have comparative (or bigger) wage bills. Throw in the fact that in his two previous managerial stints at Cardiff and Molde, the teams got worse after OGS arrived, and there might be more evidence that OGS is a negative-value manager, as opposed to even an average one.

Forget any intangibles, too. After the Wolves match, he referred to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, as “a great human being”. This, too, after continuing to play a player at Molde, who had been charged with rape and has since disappeared, seemingly in an effort to avoid facing trial in Norway. What, exactly, is this person bringing to the table?

There are a lot of assumptions you have to make when you’re talking about soccer. For example, the concept of expected goals only works because, over time, coaches will weed out the players who are truly awful finishers. Teams tend to perform to their expected-goal levels eventually because anyone who can’t kick a ball typically doesn’t make it far enough up the competitive ladder to skew the dataset. It’s not that finishing isn’t a skill; it’s that most pros have roughly the same high degree of that skill. On a slightly more advanced level, you could apply the same concept to the midfield. Teams tend not to pay a ton of money, compared to other positions, for their midfielders because, well, they exist on the part of the field farthest from the goals, and when a goal is scored or conceded, it only contains distant echoes of midfield play; it’s directly created, converted, or prevented by the attackers, defenders, and the keepers. Among the best club teams in the world, in a sense, it’s a given that most of them will have strategies and tactics that allow them to frequently move the ball up the field. Within that, it can often seem like midfielders are interchangeable pieces following similar instructions while elite attackers -- along with the occasional world-class center back and goalkeeper -- are the ones who truly drive results and increase a team’s points haul by a significant degree.

This summer, United acquired the best attacker on the market who doesn’t dream about Real Madrid in Jadon Sancho and perhaps the best central defender in Raphael Varane -- after inking Edinson Cavani, who led the team in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes last season, and before also bringing in Ronaldo. But those signings can only really have an impact within a structure that offers them enough attacking opportunities -- or in Varane’s case, a non-chaotic atmosphere to defend within. It might seem like the actual solution to the problem is to just sign a world-class midfielder -- someone who can control transitions and keep the ball pinned up in the final-third, like a defenseman in hockey. And while that would help, I’m not sure it’s the final answer. You can have all the world-class talent in the world and still win lots of games, but if you really want to compete with the other best teams in the world, you also need the thing that they all have and Manchester United still doesn’t: a coach who knows where all of his players need to be.