The questions for Manchester United fans going into the game against Tottenham were centred around whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is more than a ‘Mary Poppins’ version of a football manager. The baby-faced smile and all the noises about the ‘United Way’ were fine to beat modest opponents. But Tottenham have been one of the most consistent Premier League teams over the last few seasons.
The naysayers said the Norwegian could get exposed against a more tactically-inclined Mauricio Pochettino. But Solskjaer made subtle tweaks to his shape and the centre of his tactical plan was Jesse Lingard. The England man was deployed in an attacking forager role behind the wide forwards. The attacker didn’t produce one of his Wembley moments. But beyond any tactical analysis or statistics, Lingard was central to Manchester United producing the performance against Spurs.
The attacking forager
Tottenham deployed a midfield diamond with Harry Winks playing at the base of it. The key to Spurs’ football is the rhythm of their passing from midfield and they were surprised by Solskjaer’s tactical tweak on Sunday. Lingard was deployed to disrupt Tottenham’s deep midfield. While Manchester United needed David de Gea at his best to get the win over the line, for the first hour their tactics worked like a charm.
In a 4-3-3 formation, Lingard was stationed between Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But he was not playing as the centre-forward, more in a false 9 position or a forward forager. He was meant to make sure Spurs didn’t have any rhythm to their passing in midfield. The 26-year-old moved around like a ferret closing down the Tottenham midfield. He almost played the Roberto Firmino role: pressing, moving and stealing the ball, with Rashford and Martial making runs beyond him.
Tottenham were taken aback and in the first half, they struggled to generate any kind of rhythm. Harry Winks was struggling to conduct the game from deep-midfield. Lingard was pressing and harrying the Tottenham midfielders and their discomfort showed. The heatmap is indicative of Lingard’s performance. He was all over the pitch and disrupted Tottenham’s passing.
The raison d’etre of Solskjaer’s tactical tweaks was the goal Manchester United scored on the stroke of half-time. Paul Pogba possibly produced one of the passes of the season to find Rashford. The England striker’s pace made Jan Vertonghen look five years older than he is and he produced the finish, which he has been accused of missing from his game.
It was the goal that could have been planned in the warmer climes of Dubai last week. But what got overlooked was Lingard’s role at the moment. He dropped deep, stole the ball, played it to Pogba, who looked up and played the precision pass. Rashford’s run and goal encapsulated the whole tactical plan of the game. The delight on the bench suggested the hours of work that had gone into creating the moment.
How much of Lingard the forward forager will we see?
Lingard has been a late bloomer at Manchester United. But over the last few seasons, he has developed into a key performer for the team. Apart from his ability to score wonder strikes, the England man can be a tactical chess piece due to his versatility. The forward’s penchant for cutting into the middle and his ability on the ball makes him a valuable player. He is often at the tip of the press employed by Solskjaer and is a willing runner of lost causes. In games against lower-half teams, Lingard is expected to take his position on the right. But his performance against Tottenham on Sunday showed that his qualities can be used in more tactical shapes.
Manchester United are set to play Arsenal and the Paris Saint-Germain over the next month. Lingard is one of the first names on Solskjaer’s team sheets and he could be used in more ingenious ways than one. The Englishman could again be employed to stop the midfield that Arsenal and PSG possess. The likes of Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Marco Verratti could be in for some hustling and harrying from the ferret-like Lingard.
Solskjaer showed on Sunday that he has a smart footballing brain behind that smiling face. His use of Lingard against Tottenham proved his credentials as a tactical manager. The Englishman also played his role to the tee and played a massive part in Manchester United frustrating Tottenham for an hour or so. De Gea’s heroics finally won them the points. However, for an hour, the home side were on the edge and their midfielders were searching for answers. Lingard was the forager-in-chief as the false 9 in the system. His hustling, harrying and continuous willingness to press meant Manchester United squeezed the space for Tottenham.
But opponents will be more aware after Sunday and they won’t be as startled as Tottenham the next time Lingard is deployed in a similar role. Solskjaer’s record at Molde showed that he is not averse to changing and deploying different systems. But whatever side he puts out for the next big game, it is safe to say Lingard will be in the thick of things.
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