Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often seems destined to fail at Manchester United, and this season the stakes appear higher.
With media scrutiny mounting, Solskjaer’s future looked bleak at half-time against Atalanta on Wednesday, with United 2-0 down and staring at a fifth defeat in eight games across all competitions.
“There is pressure all the time. There is pressure on me of course but we’ve been through this before and come through it stronger as a team and as individuals,” Solskjaer said before that match.
His players came good. Goals from Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose arrival seems to have presented more questions than answers regarding Solskjaer’s tactical set-up, rescued a vital three points in the Champions League, but Sunday brings an altogether different challenge, with Liverpool in town.
How the managers match up
Prior to the clash with Atalanta, Solskjaer had taken charge of 162 games at United, with Jurgen Klopp having hit that figure at Liverpool back in September 2018.
Four months earlier, Liverpool had slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Strengthened by the arrivals of Alisson and Fabinho, they would go on to win the European trophy in 2019 – Klopp’s first piece of silverware at Anfield. A Premier League title followed in 2019-20.
Yet looking back over the pair’s first 162 matches at the helm, it is Solskjaer who can boast the better win percentage (54.9 compared to 53.1).
While Klopp recorded fewer defeats in those games (31 to 37), Solskjaer won 86 times, three more than the Liverpool boss managed.
Klopp did, however, take Liverpool to two finals in his first half-season in charge, only to lose both, in the EFL Cup and Europa League. His third final, and the last within his first 162 games, was the defeat to Madrid in Kiev.
Solskjaer, comparatively, has reached just one final – United going down on penalties in the Europa League showdown against Villarreal at the end of last season.
United scored 299 goals under Solskjaer before Wednesday, from an expected goals (xG) value of 269.6, suggesting the level of chances they have created has not quite matched the finishing. That xG figure outperforms Liverpool’s xG of 259.9, though the Reds netted 327 times.
Defence has been a major cause for concern this term, but overall Solskjaer’s United kept 59 clean sheets in 162 games prior to tackling Atalanta, conceding 168 goals.
An expected goals against (xGA) of 185.2 suggests United’s goalkeepers had plenty to do, though Liverpool only kept 62 clean sheets in the same amount of matches under Klopp, conceding four more goals (172).
Alisson’s signing in July 2018 has certainly proved key, given Liverpool’s xGA from Klopp’s first 162 games was 135.3, suggesting goalkeeping may have been responsible for some of the Reds’ issues.
On the right track?
“We’ve progressed over the years since I was [first here for] half a season. Sixth, third, second. You can see the progress, development and improvement. This season we still want to improve. We’ve signed players that have raised expectations,” Solskjaer said before the Atalanta game.
While the underlying metrics may back up Solskjaer’s point, digging deeper presents a more worrying picture.
United’s goal tallies have improved, yet Solskjaer’s crux is clearly in defence. His team allowed 685 shots last season, 70 more than in 2019-20 from the same number of games (61), with their xGA leaping from 59.2 to 71.5.
Klopp’s side, on the other hand, managed to get Liverpool’s defeats down from 12 to nine (in both 2016-17 and 2017-18) to seven in his third full season.
As Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah hit their stride, Liverpool’s goal totals ticked up, from 87 to 92 to 129, and their highest xGA value in this period was 49.5, way down on United’s worst figure.
While there may be similarities in results, Klopp used the first half of his Liverpool spell to implement a style of play, and lay the groundwork for European and domestic triumphs.
Solskjaer will insist he has a vision of what his incarnation of United should be, and though his record against other ‘big six’ Premier League sides is decent (W13 D10 L10), Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 league games, the longest current run in the top four tiers of English football.
Away from Anfield, they have scored at least three goals in each of their last five Premier League games. United have not kept a clean sheet at home in nine top-flight matches and, despite the calibre of players brought in during Solskjaer’s tenure, the old rivals look worlds apart.
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